“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.
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!
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.
After 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.
When 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.
In 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.
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!
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.
Over 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.
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. We 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….