Melbourne had been like a ‘Bristol’ on the other side of the world, and as it came time to leave, I was hoping for the sunny Somerset weather on show at Glastonbury to turn out here as I left for Sydney. This was it, the ‘final’ leg of the journey I had set out to do; just one more week now until that opera house would loom into view. The view I had imagined so many times over the past 18 months, from the depths of an eastern European winter to intense heat of the Uzbek summer, snowstorms to sandstorms and everything in between. It had always been about Sydney since the start; the city was at the end of the line I drew across my world map, and was now only one week away. Given, in that week I’d be negotiating 1000 km’s over what I’d been warned were some particularly harsh contours, but with a year and a half’s cycling perspective to draw on, I could feel one hand gripping that opera house beer already.
Back firmly in reality however, I was rediscovering my least favourite thing about cycling: big city traffic. Leaving Melbourne reminded me of everything I loathed about road riding. Even on the sabbath, negotiating the catacomb of roads out the east end of the city was anything but easy like a Sunday morning. Roadworks, angsty drivers and no option but to jump on a shoulder-less highways made for a frustratingly slow start to the day. It’s always the same game with large cities, so I should’ve expected the worst, yet my last big city traffic escapade – being snarled up in Kuala Lumpur – already felt like a distant memory.
After fighting the flow of unforgiving drivers, I was eventually able to pick a few choice small roads off of the main highway. Here at least I could fix up my bike at the side of the road in a pretty farm town without being buzzed by rogue wing mirrors and some less-than-friendly gestures. Back on the bike I found myself drifting away from all this, getting stuck into a rather poignant audiobook for the remainder of the afternoon.
Alastair Humphreys is somewhat of an icon in the cycle touring sphere. Having spent four and a half years cycling the hard way around the world in his late 20’s, he wrote it all up in a self-published best-selling book, before becoming an inspirational adventure speaker. His stories had provided the much needed platform for me to realise that this type of trip was actually possible. On my second bike trip, cycling from Helsinki to Berlin, I devoured his first book on those long Swedish summer evenings. At that point of the trip, I was feeling an intense loneliness after a week cycling through sparsely populated forests on the Swedish east coast. Whilst I was struggling along with my own adventure, I found myself riding with him as he battled with long stretches of barren land in Africa. My own discomforts and troubles were understood when viewed through the lens of his words, and I no longer felt alone.
After completing that trip I dug deeper into his work and began carrying his adventurous sentiment with me through everyday life. After a period of complete immersion in this new world, I decided to try it for myself. I wanted to live the adventurous life too; soaking up harsh miles between far flung lands full of exotic things and friendly smiles. The impact of his writing on the course of my life has been profound, so when I saw he’d released a new book, it felt fitting to listen to it on the final leg to Sydney.
The book wasn’t what I was expecting, yet it was something I really needed to hear. Weaved around the backbone of his latest adventure walking across Spain, the meat of the story was about struggling with depression. Dark times brought on by integrating back into society after his epic journey – the hardship of finding a purposeful life after living such a free existence riding around the world. There seemed to be some cruel symmetry about the timing of when his work has entered my life: ‘I left home to follow in your footsteps Al, and now I’m one week from completing the journey of a lifetime and I’m now hearing this…!’
I could relate wholeheartedly to what he was saying though, deep down I know the idea of life after this will be extremely tough for me. The thought of settling down scares me more the longer I’m away now, just that lack of purpose and freedom which makes each day so interesting here is going to be hard to find.
Amongst other things this trip has given me a curiosity to question everything. What’s ‘normal’ now is entirely dependent on where I am in the world. So the notion of London’s ‘normal’ being the ‘right’ way of doing things just isn’t there for me anymore. The idea of finding self worth working a 9-5, with the knowledge that you can live a truly fulfilling life for so little on the bike, will definitely make settling down difficult. It can be done, but it is going to take some thinking over. With these thoughts in my mind and Al’s reading in my ear, I decided to ride on into the night to mull things over some dark miles. Taking advantage of the quiet highway, I pushed on past the sunset and into the black for a few hours to nicely round off the day. Pitching up at a particularly glamorous spot behind a pile of wood chippings in the local park, I munched on a cheese sandwich before conking out – mind still echoing with Al’s words.
As I left Morwell early the next morning, I looked as though I was staring down the barrel of a lot more freeway riding to make up miles. My best friend Frank was arriving in Sydney in five days and I didn’t want to keep him waiting about after flying all that way to see me. This made the decision to take the small roads a little more difficult, but in the end I decided I wanted to enjoy the last week to Sydney. To ride all this way and not savour what a special week this is in my life would be stupid. With that in mind, I hopped onto the nearest off-road trail and rode it for the rest of the day. It was easily one of my favourite days cycling. In turning off the road, I had uncovered an old railway line that ran almost the entirety of the route I had wanted to ride. Pancake flat and with no cars to be seen, I started to remember how fun cycling can be. Zig zagging all over place, having a real laugh and enjoying having no one on the trail, it was a real breath of fresh air.
My new found determination to make the most out of the week was boosted by receiving a message from Justine, a Warmshowers host in Bairnsdale, who offered to have me for the night. After rolling into town I headed to the local supermarket to pick up some beers to say thanks. The problem with doing this is, in Australia a supermarket can’t sell beers so they usually have a little booze shop attached so you can pick up your stuff from there. I always forget this and just walk straight into the supermarket, then having to awkwardly squeeze past the checkouts in order to reach the beer shop. On this occasion an eagle-eyed shop assistant decided my strange outfit of cycling cap, lycra shorts and a baggy shirt combined with a healthy amount of dirt on my face signalled me out as a wrong-un. Shouting at me to ‘get back here right now’ as I made my way past the checkout, all heads turned on cue to see open me open a tiny handlebar bag to reveal a whole lot of everything except anything from the shop. Ah well, in the true style of delinquent society now viewed me as, I grabbed a six-pack, strapped it to my bike and cycled over to Justine’s place.
What followed was a lovely night spent hanging out with her and her flatmate over some tasty veggie food and good beer. Georgia, her greyhound, was a big hit with me, and as I came to lock up the next day, her excitement in thinking that this strange cyclist was going to take her on a walk was heartbreaking. With the thick ground frost at about equal temperature to my non-dog-walking heart, I carried on down the old railway line into the forest. It was to be an almost perfect day, with the sun beating down on my back as I ate up the wooded miles whilst nabbing as many photos as possible of this last week. A week which went from strength to strength as the beauty of the road and camp spots just increased daily.
After ‘bottoming out’ by spending a night camped in what must be the most beautiful overpass camp spot ever – just outside Orbost (there was a stunning view of the river below as wombats ran around my tent in the night) – I soon found myself camping on the gorgeous beaches of New South Wales. I had been given a heads up that the Sapphire coast road was worth checking out, and those days spent ogling the most beautiful of sandy stretches nearly converted me to becoming a beach person entirely. Despite the relentless punchy climbs making me toil for every mile, I was loving each and every second of it. Riding through wooded areas in the dark with my music the only sound about, to pitching up in marked viewpoints in the black for them to dramatically reveal themselves as the sun rose. The word epic is overused and I’m conscious of describing every other sunrise in Australia as the best ever, but there was something special about these two on the Sapphire coast. The waking of the world over the Pacific Ocean felt symbolic of how far I’d come.
In pursuit of these magic sun rise moments, I found myself one night opting to just roll out my sleeping bag on the beach between patches of heather overlooking the sea. The stars were something to behold that night. Yet, as they cast silver shadows over the beach, I began to see the beads of morning dew building on my sleeping bag. By 3am the beautiful idea of sleeping under the stars had warped into a wet sleeping bag reality. I meekly retreated to the car park where I pitched my tent before coming back for the morning sunrise. I may have cycled halfway around the world, but I’m still making stupid mistakes.
After feasting on the delights of an Aussie sunrise, I was starting to feel the intensity of the day’s riding required to make up the mileage to reach Sydney taking its toll. Frequently spending over 9 hours on the saddle each day, I found myself often riding into the night, getting a few hours sleep, packing up in the cold and then baking in the heat of the day on the punchy climbs. I looked ragged and smelt awful. Despite this, there and then I was truly happy and I knew it. I had pursued this dream of cycling to Sydney everyday for 18 months, and now I could see myself edging closer each hour. The city was on the same stretch of map I eagerly poured over each day, yet, instead of just counting down to completion, I was presently having the time of my life. Stuck in the happiest of medium’s, still involved in the adventure of cycling each day, yet I knowing what and who awaited me in Sydney had me excited for the future.
Riding hard each day past the most beautiful of vistas, then over dinner I would get another message from friends met travelling – it seemed like every man and his dog was going to be in Sydney for my arrival. I had always thought cycling into the city would be underwhelming; the opera house in my head had become a moment where I quietly rolled up without any fuss and just reflected to myself at what journey it had been. Secretly this had been to not put pressure on it to be some sort of ‘grand finale’; the destination had been only to allow for one hell of journey to reach it. However, the prospect of meeting up with mates and going out for a few big nights, and now the idea of staying put in the city to properly work on some writing really appealed to me. I hadn’t stopped anywhere longer than 10 days in 18 months, and much as I love being on the move, it’s only natural to crave stability. Only now, being so close to achieving the goal could I really discern that. Although I needed to complete this on my own, I realised that my relationships with people are far more important than the pursuit of self-centred goal.
Looking back at the journey so far, those frigid miles with Jack in Hungary, breaking into old soviet monuments with Dave in Bulgaria, mountain days with Molly and Haydn in Turkey, sandstorms with Pol in Uzbekistan, me and Dad riding motorbikes Pakistan, my birthday with Katy and Max in Nepal, Chinese New Year with Angie in Ho Chi Minh, Cambodia with Kit and sampling fine Malaysian cuisine with Kat and Lewis really mean the most to me. I hold these memories closer than any item, kilometre count or brash comment of how I cycled every single kilometre to Sydney. What makes me smile even more reading that, is just how small a fraction of incredible relationships formed on the trip they represent, yet, just how special each and everyone of those times are to me.
I knew I would be seeing a few of those people very soon, and to say I was excited would be somewhat of an understatement. Although I have been lucky enough to meet so many wonderful people on the road here, my oldest friends will always be the closest. To have my best friend from school – Frank – flying all the way out here felt so special. We had shared every single class together in sixth form, both have a passion for electronic music and a keen eye for a stupid joke. It had been the best part of two years since last seeing him, and it felt right that I would achieve my goal with someone I started it all with.
It was easy to get carried away and look ahead to all this now, but still a few more than tough days remained. Earlier in the week I had crashed hard on one of the dirt tracks, snapping my mudguard and breaking two panniers. Yet my body was easily the most in need of fixing. That usual second wind of energy that would arrive as I rode into the night had started to evade me as I felt my legs were now truly out of gas. Homing in on Wollongong one night, I pulled into a petrol station with the idea of wolfing down some energy bars, only to end up sprawled out on the concrete floor fast asleep in seconds. Lying comatosed under the bright lights whilst cars passed right by me, it was a good 10 minutes before I could eventually pull myself together. I desperately needed to find somewhere to crash. With little choice and even less energy, I opted for the local park. A park in a built up area is never a good choice, but I just couldn’t go any further and promptly crashed out in my tent.
A couple of hours kip. 3:30am wake. Ride to the nearest 24 hour fast food place – pack myself with as much salt and sugar as possible. Message from Kieran, ‘wait you’re gonna be in Sydney today? Unreal effort man!’ It didn’t feel real right now that’s for sure, I could barely stay awake. An ocean sunrise viewed from the cycle path helped slowly ease me back into reality. A reality that this was the last day’s cycle to Sydney. Shit, this was actually it. Today was the day that I’d finally finish what I started, the day I’d finally see the Opera house and the day I’d finally see Kit and Frank. A warm wave washed over me at the thought, as the morning surf pushed smiling surfers to shore. It was enough to turn a grimaced ‘pain face’ into somewhat of a smile, as Sunday cyclists overtook me up the final switchback climb. ‘You can do it mate!’ One guy shouted. With only 50 km’s to go now, I really could.
After cresting the climb I hopped into one of the highway bike lanes and began cruising towards the distant Sydney skyline. Tired legs span me into city fringes where I was snarled up by dense traffic caused by idle roadworks. An hour of stop-start riding, the thing that I hate the most, but this time it didn’t feel real. This was different.
Rockdale, Arncliffe, Newtown, Redfern… I knew Kit lived in Redfern, she had pinned her house location on my map whilst in Cambodia – it was just a couple of streets away. I felt genuine butterflies approaching her place as I recognised her letterbox from one of our FaceTime conversation’s. It had been a good few months since we last saw each other and here I was just turning up at her place. I needn’t have worried, as a huge hug on the doorstep that felt like something out of a movie, a time-stopping frame of my arrival in the city, that eventually gave way to shouting ‘I’m in Sydney!’ at the top of my lungs, as I carried on riding down the street. A few heads turned to see me grinning away and bound for the opera house.
Past the Aussie version of Hyde park I now weaved onto Macquarie Street where the road eventually just ran out. Water greeted me before an iconic view of the Harbour Bridge and Opera house opened out before my eyes. Illuminated in the Sydney sunshine, it was more beautiful than I had dare imagine. All those hours and hours on the road thinking of this moment to now be here. Unreal.
I just stood there, hands on head slowly taking everything in. The small things. The definition of each tile on the Opera house that I had never noticed before in photos, just how huge the bridge was, then how I had just completed what had been a four year dream of mine – I had cycled from London to Sydney. I span round, allowing myself a little smile before I saw Frank walking towards me and gave him a bear hug. ‘Bloody hell, it’s good to see you man!’ We both cracked open a beer, sat on the grass and talked for hours. If there was anyway I wanted London to Sydney to end it was like this.
That final hour up until sitting there on the grass will live with me forever as one of the happiest in my life. At 16:32 on 27th of July, 2019, I achieved what I set out to do.
Chatting to Frank it was like I had never been away, yet, whilst we were talking I knew I wasn’t ready to head home just yet. For me there needed to be one more stage of this trip before it could be truly over. Those thoughts could wait for now though as we’d been invited to a house party for the night. More strangers to befriend and stories to hear, but we were in Sydney, damn that sounded good – lets toast to that over a beer.