Out of our minds in the Outback

Welcome to QLD!We arrived in Camooweal just after the town’s general store had shut its doors at 5pm. This was rather problematic as we needed to buy some food before heading out of town again, so we pressed our noses up against the glass and knocked until someone let us in. They absolutely weren’t delighted to see us, in fact, I’m pretty sure we must have given them a deadly disease as we pleaded our way in to spend a fortune on their overpriced goods – $3 for a single 200 gram tin of baked beans, $5 for a packet of Allen’s lollies, $8 for a bottle of juice etc.

We could have filled up the bottles and pedalled on out, but it had been a long day with another ripping headwind, so we were more inclined to celebrate with a burger or two at the first and last pub in Queensland.

That’s right! We’d made it to the Sunshine State. We got up early and started making our progress towards Mount Isa. We were relying on a rest area, similar to the ones we had found in the NT, with some bore water to make it to our destination.water... water...! In Camooweal people had told us there would be water at one of the many rest stops on the way to the ‘big smoke’ and as we hadn’t been failed yet, we were confident. After 130 kilometres and two rest areas we weren’t so confident. There was no water out there except for a couple of turkeys’ nests (that is what they call a self made dam that the livestock drink out of). We were down to our last 5 litres and we knew we were in trouble. We calculated how many more kilometres there were between us and Isa and rationed out the water per 10 kilometres. It worked out to be about 300 millimetres per person, per 10 kilometres. I was suddenly parched.

We tried waving down passing caravans to see if they could spare a litre or two but no-one stopped. We had a couple of people wave back at us which I thought was a little odd. Guys, when you see two cyclists out the in the middle of the desert waving an empty water bottle in the air, they’re dried up ok? You need to stop.

To be fair, it is a highway and people were travelling very, very fast. Plus there weren’t many people passing through so our sample group was small. I’m not ready to condemn my fellow Queenslanders to the most unfriendly mob of people we’ve met on our travels… yet.

Anyway, back to our predicament which I hope many of you will remember I listed in my last blog post as the most probable way in which we could die: dehydration. Ashley was amazing at this point and I was a total mess. I am pretty sure that without his kindness, determination and always drinking slightly less than his allotted 300 mil to enable me to drink more, I would have been cactus.

At about 8:00pm we spotted another rest area and with delight saw that it had toilets that flushed with tank water! Yes, it was labelled “not suitable for drinking” but we were a wee bit desperate (pardon the pun) so we opened up the tank, filled up our bottles, popped in some chlorine tablets and toasted to good health. It was the best drink of water I have ever had.

Welcome to The IsaThe next morning we made an early start towards Mount Isa. Once we were within 10 kilometres of the city our phone started going ballistic with all the calls and emails we’d missed since we’d left Katherine, two weeks ago.

Mount Isa is one of the ugliest cities I think I’ve ever been to. It is the original mining town of Queensland: big smoke stacks, big trucks and big guys in fluorescent shirts are the city’s quintessential images. But the place also had big grocery stores, running water and various fast food outlets so I was in heaven.

Whilst sitting at one of these said outlets, Ash and I encountered another cyclist who was attempting to set the new world record for cycling around Australia. We didn’t so much as notice him as we did his huge entourage of helpers: a manager, a masseuse, a medical advisor and about five other people who were doing anything from forcing McNuggets down his throat to researching remedies for saddle sores. Our suggestion was corn flour by the way. record chaserThey had two vehicles: one an ordinary car and the other a whopping great campervan complete with a kitchen and bed. Not that the record chaser himself seemed to be sleeping much. To achieve the world record he had to pedal 400 kilometres a day and to achieve that, he was cycling through the night. He looked like a zombie and I don’t think what he was doing could be in any way construed as fun. However he had no panniers, was only carrying about 600 millilitres of water at any time and was going the opposite way to us so he had a ripping tail wind. And it was these factors that made Ash declare that he could keep up if he too were riding a carbon fibre roadie.

He was probably right you know. People always joked before we flew out to London that the next time they would see us, we would have legs like tree trunks. Mine were still more twig like but Ashley’s were monstrous… a good indicator of who was doing most of the pushing. He’d given up trying to wear ‘modesty pants’ over the top of his lycra shorts because he figured two layers were hotter than one and so everywhere we stopped, people stared at Ashley’s legs. Or were they staring at his crotch? It was pretty hard to tell. Once, a mother and her small child walked their shopping trolley into me while trying to successfully navigate around his quads. Oh how will he ever wear skinny jeans again?

The following afternoon we cycled past the sign that said “Welcome to the Isa, now you’re a real Aussie now!” and hit the road to Cloncurry, which was a beautiful 120 k ride. The flat barren plains of the Barkley Tablelands had softened into undulating scrubland with big ghost gums. The amount of Kangaroos had also quadrupled and we were quite wary of one jumping out at us in the dark, as they seemed to do to cars.

dead rooThe land all the way to Winton was dry as a bone. Skeletons of roos, emus, possums, sheep and cattle lined the dusty roadside and whatever bones hadn’t been picked clean by scavengers yet were surrounded by hungry wedge tail eagles. They started circling above us at one point, still deciding whether we were ready to die or not. Anytime we stood still for a drink, a snack or to fix a flat tyre they would come in closer.

Three-trailer road-trains carrying cattle were passing by more and more frequently as farmers made the tough decision to relocate their beasts to slaughter houses or sale yards down south. North-western Queensland was in drought and there was just no food for them up there. Those already too unwell for travel were left in the fields to die. Tough times for many.

About 20 kilometres out of Longreach it was as though someone had turned the water on. Plenty of green, a big river and mosquitoes to boot. The sun was setting as we came to the fringes of the town and we saw a very odd sight: a man standing on the roadside with two camels and a ute. It occurred to us immediately that the two camels wouldn’t fit in the ute, so we went over to have a chat with the old chap who seemed to be their carer. Claus the Camel ManKlaus was his name and no, the camels didn’t fit in the ute, they pulled it! Each day Klaus would attach Willie and Snowy (the camels) to a large protruding front pole on the ute just like a modern day horse and cart. Klaus’ didn’t own more than what could fit on his rig: he had a billy for making tea, an e-book for reading, an old radio, a phone and a laptop with an internet dongle. He wasn’t crazy, or even lonely for that matter. People would stop by the side of the road to have a chin wag with him and he had friends all over the country that he’d visit in turn riding his unique chariot. We could have stayed and talked to him for hours, but the sun was going down and we needed to get some supplies in Longreach before everything shut.

tree of knowledgeIn Barcaldine we visited the Tree of Knowledge and not stopping for more than two hours to cook dinner, plunged back on the road towards Blackall where we knew there was a warm bed waiting for us. Early in the morning on the road we saw Ashley’s Cousin Cameron, his wife Belinda and their three boys, Charlie, Max and George on their way to Saturday footy in Barcaldine. Even Belinda’s parents were in the back seat, willing to drive for an hour and a half to see children under 10 muck-about on a field. It was only a quick hello, Cameron explained, because the first game started at nine, but they’d be home a bit after lunch. Sure enough, they drove to Barcaldine, sat through three different footy matches and were almost home again when they caught up to us pedalling the final 10 kilometres. Puts our pace of travel into perspective I guess.

It was the night of the local school fete, so the family were obliged to help out at the food stalls and Ash and I were obliged to eat as much fete food as we possibly could: steak burgers, ice slushies, dounuts, milkshakes, fairy floss, cupcakes and gooey slice! Blackall familyLiterally feeding our savage appetites were Ashley’s Uncle John and Aunt Diana who live on a property just outside town called Trailee. As it turned out, basically the entire town had been on the road to Barcaldine and back that day, and everyone at the fete (which was almost everyone in the town) was coming up to us saying, “are you the lunatics we saw today riding a pushie down the highway?”

The next morning, after a coffee and some cereal, we were off to a late start. We still managed to make good progress towards Tambo and reached Augathella by lunch the following day. It wasn’t until Morven that we realised we had a potential show stopping issue: the side wall of our tyre was wearing thin and it wouldn’t be long before it……. POP! It popped. We changed the tube and pedalled cautiously down the road until it popped again, and again! The gaping hole was actually in the tyre itself and kept getting cut up by small sticks and stones. “No biggie,” I hear you saying, “just put the spare tyre on!”

But this was the spare tyre.

We’d only put this tyre on in Winton and it was the ducks nuts of tyres! A Schwalbe Big Apple! And no, they don’t sell Schwalbe tyres in Morven.

pop!When we gave up trying to patch and repatch the tyre, we were only about 25 kilometres west of Mitchell, where Ashley had some more relatives. Luckily they were expecting us in town at a certain time and when we didn’t show up, they came looking for us. Scott and Gigi found us sitting in the slither of shade cast off our bike on the roadside, looking utterly defeated. The shops were all closed when we reached Mitchell, riding in the back of Scott and Gigi’s ute so we agreed to stick around for at least 24 hours to try and source a new tyre. Honestly, it must be a good gig to be a shop owner in country Australia… the working days are short!

Ruby and Gigi

Turns out a taste of country life was just what we needed… and I am not just talking about Gigi’s amazing cooking! Ash and I put Willie to rest for the day and pottered around Westwood property on Scott’s old dirt bike getting to know animals like Randy-Roo, a notoriously “friendly” rooster and Ruby, a poddy calf who like many of the human inhabitants of Queensland, was extremely inquisitive about Ashley’s legs but unlike many of the human inhabitants, decided to lick them excessively. We also managed to find the only 20 inch tyre in Mitchell. It wasn’t great quality but it would get us the 90 kilometres to Roma at least.
Roma, Ashley’s original stomping ground. He was jabbering away as we came in, full of memories about places and people until finally we were out the front of The Overlander Motel and Ashley was being squeezed to death by his mum Amanda, dad Charles and four very excited sisters- Emily, Holly, Chloe and Chelsea. Also there to see us was Ashley’s Grandma Lally and Uncle Haywood. It was great to see you guys all looking so well and happy. We just can’t thank you enough for making we two weary travellers feel alive again!

It was almost Easter and acknowledging that the Easter Bunny might not find us on the side of the road, we took a few days off to have a holiday with family. The only problem was that chocolate doesn’t fair too well in black panniers in the Australian heat, so we had to eat it all at once. Oh well…

bottle treeThe next blog will be about us arriving home. I suppose I could just write it now, but honestly this blog is way too long already and I think I need another thousand words to describe all the emotion in that scene.

Thanks to all who helped and supported us. And an extended middle finger to all the wanker drivers who tried to kill us on the way home.

We’re back! Laura.


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Becoming Territory Tough

The territory... it's a tough place!“Watch out for the crocs!” was the final warning called out from the manager of the Mataranka petrol station as we kicked off from the kerb. We’d spent a blissful, pedalless week with my family visiting from Darwin, Litchfield National Park, Kakadu and Catherine Gorge by car (and hadn’t seen a single croc by the way) and now we were on our own again in the ‘great’ Australian outback.

But our chances of being munched by a big saltie was the least of our worries. Dehydration would probably be the quickest and easiest way to go. The outback was full of a whole lot of nothing: no people, no shops, no water and no shade.

Katherine Gorge

To make it out alive, we would have to carry around 15 litres of water with us on the bike for every 24 hours. In order to make this even remotely possible, we’d offloaded several items to my family to take back home with them, including our winter clothing (only useful as a pillow recently) and my beloved laptop. That’s why this blog is so extremely belated!

A big rig... and a road train!Back to the various ways we could die. Stepping on a snake was probably threat number two and death by a 50 metre road train came in at number three. People we met along the way at various petrol stations, pubs and roadhouses had great fun predicting the ways in which we would die. My particular favourite was a man who insisted a kangaroo would jump out at us on the road last minute and knock us off onto the bitumen.

As we pedalled away the sun was beating down hard and the novelty of cycling again after a week-long break quickly wore off. The road was so flat and straight that in front of us we could see exactly where we were going to be for the next hour. Heartbreaking boredom. Tree, long grass, termite mound, speed sign, tree, long grass termite mound, speed sign, tree… and so it continued. Some genius had the idea of dressing up the termite mounds with t-shirts, hats, glasses and ties. That kept us amused for a short while before we started shooting fervent glances at the odometer every minute.

Heat StrokeAfter 80 kilometres we stopped at Larrimah, a town with only a pub, a motel and a bakery, and filled up our water bottles and pushed into the heat of the day. It was 48 degrees on the Stuart Highway and by the time we pulled up at 4pm, we were convinced the termite mounds were real people. Ashley shoved the bike at me, put his hand to this mouth and ran away to some nearby bushes to be sick. I did the only polite thing I could think of and put my fingers in my ears. And that was how we started our first day cycling in Australia. With heat stroke.

The night time wasn’t a great deal more comfortable. The humidity seemed to increase and the wind stopped, leaving us to drown in sticky pools of our sweat. I was also a bit worried about our water situation. We’d started the day with 12 litres, filled up again at Larrimah, and somehow, we were down to our last two litres with 60 kilometres left to cycle before the next town.

Daly Waters PubWhen we pulled into Daly Waters Pub the next morning we were about ready to drink from the toilet bowl. The timber shack boasts a fine collection of caps, bras and identity cards of its past patrons. We even saw a stick that must have been slapped onto the bar by Charlie Borman when he was filming his travel docco “By Any Means.” We sat in the corner guzzling coke and letting our eyes comb the collage of history that covers every surface. After an hour, we reluctantly stepped back outside to secure all our freshly filled bottles to the bike and get back on the Stuart.

Given the previous day’s illness, we were careful not to ‘overdo it’ again and took to stopping every 10 kilometres to gulp down some water in the shade of a tree. We’d also upped our water count to 13.5 litres. We sailed through Dunmarra, a glorified petrol station slash campground and made some progress towards Elliot before the sun set for another stinking hot, miserable night. Even the sound of the mosquitoes outside the fly screen of our tent sounded like a-thousand children screaming.

SunsetIn the morning, we packed up at first light. The mosquitoes were having a lie in but the flies were already out in full force and flew straight into the tent as soon as we cracked open the zips. We tried to shake them out before we rolled it up but it was impossible! Needless to say, I found a smattering of squashed fly guts inside the tent as we pitched up again 12 hours later. In Katherine, Ash and I had invested in some mesh fly nets which we could pull over our heads and quickly pull in the draw string to keep out the buzzing vermin, who we’d now sarcastically nicknamed “our millions of friends.” We call this magnificent invention a “Bush Burqa” and honestly, it’s the best invention since the free-standing tent. We would have gone insane without them.Flies in my eyes!

We were making good progress towards Elliot, a town we were hoping would at least have a general store, when a car drove past us going the opposite way, its driver and passenger hanging out the window yelling and waving. Now Ash and I are fairly used to acknowledging passing motorists because normally, they’ve got their nose pressed right up against their windows to try and get a better look at us. So when we saw these fellas, we gave our habitual polite smile and wrist movement that was half wave, half fly swat. The car did a dramatic u-turn and sped back towards us. We both let out a sigh: was this going to be another brief but unwanted support crew? Trust me, we attract ALL sorts. Normally they would putt along beside us for a few kilometres with their phone cameras protruding out the window and ask us questions ridiculous questions like, “what are you doing?” WHAT DO YOU THINK WE ARE DOING?!?!?! RIDING A RIDICULOUS LOOKING TANDEM BICYCLE THROUGH THE ASSHOLE OF AUSTRALIA OF COURSE!

Caleb!But when the car landed beside us we saw a familiar smile. “CALEB!” A good friend from Brisbane was on his way to visit another mate living in Darwin. Caleb gave us two bananas, a peach and a serious morale boost.

Elliot was an Aboriginal town. The only white people were behind the counter of the town’s petrol station and general store. Either side of the store, the town was divided into two camps: north and south who apparently had an ongoing dispute that no one could remember the start of. The local pub was divided in two by a chain-wire fence and each side had different opening and closing times so the patrons from conflicting tribes wouldn’t be outside at the same time. All the houses were made out of fire-proof colorbond-steel, personalised with a touch of spray painted bubble writing.

NothingnessOver the next two days we moved at what felt like snail’s pace towards the Threeways Roadhouse. This is the point where you can either go south to Alice Springs, North to Darwin or East to Queensland. We were going east and what lay ahead was some of the most difficult days of the past 14 months. The notorious Barkley Highway. 755 kilometres of pure, uninhabitable desert with a rip-your-face-off easterly wind. We shovelled in some burgers and two litres of coke at the roadhouse and set out with trepidation. Would we survive? You know because you are reading this that we obviously did, but it was a legitimate question at the time. I was so nervous I had a tingly feeling in my gut… or had I just drunk too much coke at the roadhouse?

We rode into the night. As the light slid over the horizon the temperature dropped and we drank less water per kilometres. The raging headwind also died down and suddenly we found ourselves hooning along at 25 kilometres an hour! From that moment, we knew how we would survive the Barkley stretch: by riding at night. It was incredibly safe. Because we were so far away from civilisation, we could see a truck or car coming from either direction at least 20 kilometres before they reached us. And to be honest there weren’t many people on the road. I counted 4 vehicles in six hours that first night on the Barkley Highway.

Double burger time!Warning!About 160 kilometres later we’d arrived at the Barkley Homestead. The only food-stop before Queensland. Dotted along the highway were “rest areas” where we were able to fill our bottles with bore and tank water. We considered the rest areas to be five-star camping. They had shaded park benches and tables, toilets (with toilet paper!) and water – albeit often of questionable quality. But of course what the rest areas didn’t have were burgers! Ashley ordered two, one chicken and one hamburger plus a bowl of chips, at the Homestead before turning to me and asking, “and what do you want?” There were signs on the highway that read “WARNING, HEADWINDS INCREASE FUEL CONSUMPTION.” Right they were! We left the homestead in the dark and did a final 40 kilometres before setting up camp. This turned out to be our longest day ever in the saddle: 162.14 kilometres and 10 hours.

The next day was stinking hot. We kept going by travelling only 10 kilometres at a time and then stopping for a drink. We had to keep forcing the water down or we would face dehydration. At lunch time we found an abandoned building and decided to escape the sun and flies for a few hours. Territory speedsWe ate some bread and Promite, baked beans and a packet of lollies before rolling out the mattresses to try and get a couple of hours sleep. I know Ashley got to sleep because I could hear him gently snoring, but I was wide awake with thoughts of what life would be like once we stopped living this nomadic, cycling life. In the abandoned building, in the sweltering heat with only my bush burqa holding together my sanity, I was excited about the prospect of living somewhere. Somewhere with climate control, a fridge, a washing machine and internet.

Later, after we’d packed up, cycled another 60 kilometres and unpacked again for the night, my morale reached a new low point. I blew a dead fly out of my nose.

Next stop… Queensland….