Cycling On A Corrugated Roof Covered With Kangaroos
I suppose my first week cycling south from Darwin was re-acclimatisation. There is a lot more to this cycling expedition lark than purely saddle time. After a few days off in Singapore, a couple of cricket matches in Indonesia, a week on a cattle boat to the land down under and three more days spent preparing in Darwin, my fitness had begun to desert me.
The first week was uneventful, if only because I was a semi-fit mess pedaling a busy highway, and each evening saw me semi-comatose and asleep before sunset. On the morning of 6th October though, on a whim, I decided to leave the Stuart Highway in search of the outback proper. My experience began to improve as I headed east on the Roper Highway towards Roper Bar. There is plenty to tell, and against my better judgement, I’ll tell a lot of it here – let’s call this a bumper blog, courtesy of my diary notes.
Wednesday 6th October – Mataranka towards Roper Bar – 75kms
If there’s a road less deserving of the grand title ‘highway’ than the Roper Highway then, well, I would be surprised. First 40kms out of Mataranka (real life location of the book, ‘We Of The Never Never’ by Jeannie Gunn) is single lane, poorly maintained bitumen, about the width of an adult Taipan snake and two thirds the width of a car. Then it’s 135kms of corrugated gravel – imagine cycling across a corrugated tin roof covered in sand and kangaroos. The ‘highway’ runs east from Mataranka all the way to the Gulf of Carpentaria, but I’ll be turning off tomorrow when I reach Roper Bar after about 175kms. Roper Bar sits in the south east corner of Arnhem Land, a historically significant Aboriginal area roughly the size of France. As I came onto the gravel, I passed a road sign indicating: “Warning! Gravel Track. Road driving skills necessary.” I thought road driving skills were necessary on most roads, not just crap ones. Excited to be in this country though, as reading great book called Hell West & Crooked – Tom Cole’s account of his life as a horse breaker, buffalo and crocodile hunter and genuine wild-man in the Northern Territory in the 1920/30’s. Writing 50 years later, he says: “Arnhem Land, even today, is one of the most remote spots in the world.” Carrying two days’ water at the moment (17 litres for drinking and cooking) so bike is heavy. Camped by the side of the road, incredible sunset, a million stars and the milky way – plus ca change….
Thursday 7th October – Roper Highway to Roper Bar – 101kms
Thought sunset was good. Sunrise was better. Not bothering with tent’s outer shell at moment as rain seems unlikely, so watched the sun from behind the mozzie net until about 6.30am and then got up and went home…to the road. Flies are hellish first thing, reckon I had over a hundred scattered all over my bags and face / shoulders most of the morning. Studied their movements for a good half hour - they seem to sit, then rub themselves on my skin, then rub their hands / front legs together furiously before rubbing their face. Glad my sweat is of use to them – disgusting creatures. Reached for my fly head net for the first time – felt like a plonker but it worked. Road very potholed and bumpy in places all day. Bloke pulled over about lunch time. “You look like you could do with a coke mate!” He reached into the fridge beside him (all drivers have fridges here, obviously) and pulled out an ice cold coke. Bruce was his name. We chatted for a good half hour, about buffalo hunting and the plight of the local Aboriginal population. Read some of Hell West and Crooked at lunch time and came across the line: “…a billy can of tea and damper and I was overflowing with the milk of human kindness.” Bruce’s gift of a coke is the modern equivalent I suppose, but equally welcome. He told me his wife and daughter (Kris and Emma) were following him about an hour back. As I pedaled on, a car pulled up and it looked like a mother and daughter inside. I scared them by shouting across, “Hi Kris, hi Emma!” They didn’t have a clue who I was – until I explained. Plenty of wild animals knocking about – brumbies, donkeys, kangaroos, wedge tail eagles, the odd buffalo and flocks of bright green parrots. Dropped into Flying Fox cattle station just off the ‘highway’ to fill up my water bottles. Reached Roper Bar exhausted to find it wasn’t a town like I expected, but just a small shop servicing the local Aboriginal communities. They told me the next town or village on my route is Camooweal in Queensland, over 1,600kms away – that’s John O’Groats to Land’s End without a village or town. Not too many trees between here and Camooweal either. Big country, Australia.
N.B. ‘damper’ is an outback bread, made from self raising flour, almost any liquid, sugar, salt and is cooked on coals. I have eaten it since and it’s good.
Friday 8th October – Roper Bar to Tomato Island – 40kms
A few things to see around Roper Bar, not least the bar itself, a river crossing that was first used by Ludwig Leichardt, the German 19th Century explorer, and then by those who built the Adelaide to Darwin Overland Telegraph line some years later. I cycled across the bar through water perhaps 12 inches deep, onto Arnhem Land, and had a swim in a small pool with an Aboriginal lady and her white husband. Just before I cycled back they said they had seen a 6 metre crocodile not far from the bar last week. Bit nervous as I cycled back! Now heading towards Cape Crawford on dirt / sand, about 380kms south through Limmen National Park. Hadn’t been on the road 20 minutes when a truck and trailer pulled up. Inside were three men – they looked like miners. The driver chirped up, “you f****** stupid b******. ‘Straaaya’ looks small on a map but it’s a bloody big paddock once you get here! Especially on a pushie!” With that he jumped out and reached into the freezer on his trailer and handed me a can of coke and two large bottles of iced water, muttering something about me being a ‘bloody bar steward’ as he did so. He said he’d be driving back through in a few days and would give me more of ‘nature’s fine wine’ if I wanted. I thanked him for his kind welcome, and welcome gifts, and carried on. The road, if that’s what it was, got worse throughout the day. I had to get off and push when the sand got too deep. I fell off twice, once cutting my foot on a sharp stone and using my first aid kit for the first time since Africa. Progress was slow. The temperature rose to 47 degrees in the sun. My mood was lifted when, 4kms before Tomato Island, a spot I had been told was suitable for camping, I spied a water hole that covered half the road, and seemed to be the product of a natural spring nearby. It was the size of a double bed but more wet, about a metre deep and crystal clear. I washed, brushed my teeth, filled up my water bottles and cycled onwards to Tomato Island, which curiously isn’t an island at all. Camped 100 metres from the Roper River – crocodiless rarely venture more than 50 metres from rivers, so I’ve been told.
Saturday 9th October – Tomato Island to Towns River – 90kms
On the road nice and early, carrying only 10 litres of water today because the road is so corrugated. Saw first tourists for a few days. German couple were under the shade of a paperbark tree eating melon. They offered me some and I accepted. Heaved the bike through deep sand most of the day, jumping off occasionally to push for a kilometre or so. A grader was supposed to have been along this track only last month, but evidence suggests otherwise. My right eye was useless by the end of the day due to dust, and my left wasn’t much better. I reached Towns River just before sunset – not a good time to cross rivers in the Territory because crocodiles begin to get slink back into the water about then. I wanted to get across though – I was told about a safe camping spot on the other side, complete with bush toilets! Left my bike at the top of the hill and wandered down to the submerged crossing. I saw a crocodile immediately and it came out of the water no more than 15 metres from me. It was a saltwater croc – not the less ferocious freshwater variety – and perhaps 5 metres long. I turned, ran, picked up my bike and cycled furiously from where I had come. I pitched my tent about a kilometre from the river. There’s no way I’m crossing the river tonight. Bit shaken, and wondering how I will get across the river in the morning. Cooked my dinner in the middle of the road in case a car came – wanted to ask for a lift across. Car didn’t come.
Sunday 10th October – Towns River to Butterfly Springs – 85kms
Every rustle last night made me nervous. I didn’t know if there were other creeks running off the river, and therefore crocs. Rose with the sun and waited for a truck / car to pass. It was 10am by the time some fishermen came along, and I hauled my bike onto their truck for the 30 metre crossing. I expect they thought I was a pathetic pommie, but I didn’t care. In all the excitement I forgot, until around lunch, that today is my anniversary; one year on the road – it’s not been a bad way to spend a year! Beginning to think of the end now though, certainly. Only 44 days until I reach Brisbane! Land was more varied today. Red sandstone escarpments rose from the plains, trees thinned out and I enjoyed the views. There were about 10 creek crossings though, and I didn’t relish them. I was aiming for Butterfly Springs where I could swim. About 10kms out I saw something that surprised me; another cyclist! His name was Greg, he was cycling around Australia , clockwise from his home in Perth. I wanted to chat for longer, but wanted to go for a swim before dark more. Reached BS a sweaty, dusty mess and sank into the pool, enjoying the cool water until all light had gone and I had to feel my way back to the camping spot and pitch my tent. Jana and Sebastian, the ‘German melons’, were there too. I enjoyed an evening in their company. They cooked pasta for me and we chatted about our respective travels, their 4×4, my bike and their travelling dog, Bounty.
Monday 11th October – Butterfly Springs to the Southern Lost City – 30kms
I lazed around this morning, chatting with the Germans, swimming and reading. I had a feeling I had nothing in my legs, and I was right. I only managed 30kms along an increasingly treacherous surface before falling off the bike in heavy sand opposite a track sign-posted ‘The Southern Lost City’. I took it as a sign, so to speak, and meandered along the detour, setting up camp just below some impressive red sandstone rock formations. Again, I found the Germans there. I’m sure we are the only tourists in the area, and I’m also sure they think I’m stalking them, but they seem not to mind – could be worrying in itself. Early start tomorrow so about to nod off, shortly after sundown (7pm).
Tuesday 11th October – Southern Lost City to Borroloola – 130kms
Rose before the sun today. Huge day on dirt planned – 110kms south to Cape Crawford and a coca cola. Began to pack up around 5.30am and saw, to my horror, that my bike rack had snapped where it had been welded previously in India (and before that in Turkey). Didn’t even notice it last evening. Tried to use cable ties to support the weight but it wouldn’t work – I’m carrying about 50 kgs at the back, with water supply. Thank heavens for the Germans! I would have had to wait perhaps a day or two for another passing car if they weren’t about. Decided there was unlikely to be a welder in Cape Crawford, so tied my bike to their bull bar and they took me on their route to Borroloola – completely the wrong way for me, but the only feasible option. Once there, found a mechanic who promised he would weld my bike rack on this evening, so left my bike with him, to pick it up first thing. Camped with the Germans – delicious barbequed bratwurst for dinner. They threatened sauerkraut but I persuaded them out of it.
Wednesday 12th October- Borroloola to Cape Crawford – 110kms
Borroloola is a pretty grotty small country town, given a sad face by the hundreds of drunk aborigines stumbling around. Turned up at the welder’s yard at 7.30am: “Oh yeah, sorry mate, don’t have any gas, so couldn’t weld your bike.” I fought back rage and took the bike to another mechanic, Harry Fischer – long grey beard threatening his belt buckle, legs like match sticks and far too short shorts – who did the job ‘no worries’ in under five minutes for $10, even throwing in a few cable ties. I cycled back to the campsite where the Germans were tucking into leftover bratwurst, said my goodbyes and pedaled off towards Cape Crawford – 110kms in 6 hours, some sort of record for me. Lucky I detoured to Borroloola – Cape Crawford is not a village and is not a town. The only thing in Cape Crawford is the Heartbreak Hotel, presumably named so because it is so far from anywhere at all. I didn’t see another person on the cycle here, barely a kangaroo either. I was lucky to arrive just after a group of fishermen from Queensland. Their truck has broken down and they have to take it to Borroloola to get it fixed. As a result, they were attacking the Heartbreak bar with no little enthusiasm, and invited me to join them. Generous fellows, them and others – 9 or 10 beers later I slept very well in my tent, so well that I didn’t wake up when it started raining. The tactic of disregarding my tent’s outer shell backfired horribly, resulting in a soggy tent interior in the morning.
From Cape Crawford it was back on bitumen, south towards the Barkly Homestead some 377kms away. But I’m not there yet. I stopped at Brunette Downs cattle station on Saturday, the North Australian Cattle Company and Elders having arranged a bed for me here – and that is where I am now. It is a fantastic place! The next blog, already written, tells of my time here helping out with a spot of cattle mustering, yarding and riding choppers. Some great photos too, some of which you can see on my facebook page already – the others will be up on flickr.com soon.
36 days until The Ashes – circa 2,750kms to go! Please keep donating to my chosen charities, and encouraging others too.