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Cattle Boat To Australia

September 26, 2010

Stone the crows, ya flamin’ mongrel! Darwin’s as dry as a dead dingo’s donger. What a ripper though, a real bewt! Some of these locals are mad as cut snakes, a few kangaroos loose in the top paddock, but nothing the odd knuckle sandwich won’t sort. She’ll be right, bloody oath. No worries mate.

Yes, that’s right. I’m in Australia.

Finola, the Danish cattle ship I boarded in Lampung Province on Sumatra on 15th September, docked in Darwin harbour late on the 22nd. I celebrated my arrival by picking every last microscopic pebble out of my bike tyres – Australian quarantine is nothing if not strict and the officer who inspected my ride was, well, a moron – and, after being dropped off at my sponsored accommodation by (sponsor) Ashley from the North Australian Cattle Company, I headed for a watering hole to remind myself what it’s like to sit in a proper bar, with proper beer. I ordered a VB Draught and decided it was the worst beer I have ever had. Within five minutes I was wholly depressed. As I propped up the bar and watched a brawl play out near the dance floor (presumably one bloke thought another bloke had a cooler whole body tattoo than him, so decided to punch him) it dawned on me that the ‘exotic’ part of my trip is over. Bar brawls regularly feature during nights out back home and it’s no different here. Having travelled through many countries some might consider less civilized, I haven’t got close to seeing a fight. Now I’m back in ‘the civilized west’ and drunken fighting has returned. How sad.

Nevertheless, I couldn’t be more excited about the journey ahead. 4,000 kms of bush is waiting to be cycled. I am stocked up with food for a while – peanut butter, bread, vegemite, raisins, rice, dry garlic, sweet chili sauce, Fishermans’ Friends. In about a week’s time I will be in Mataranka, in the heart of the famous Never Never. I leave tomorrow (Monday) bound first for croc-free swimming holes in Litchfield National Park. But before I look ahead, I’ll tell you a little bit about the journey from Indonesia.

I boarded Finola at 5pm on the 15th and was soon fast asleep, tired after a few glasses of Bundaberg rum the night before thanks to Dick Slaney, the Elders man who arranged my passage to Australia. I woke up at 6am and the cattle was still being loaded onto trucks and taken to the nearby feed-lot. It took 14 hours to unload the 1,900 head of cattle – that was a pretty long shift for the stockman and 12 Philipino crew who oversaw the affair. But we were on the way later that morning, taking an empty boat back to Darwin to pick up the next 2,000 lumps of beef. The sea was calm, the sun was out and I enjoyed some time in the shade reading, writing and sleeping.

Things changed that night, when a 20ft swell appeared and didn’t relent until 50 miles from Darwin, a week later. Initially reading was out of the question, writing too. On the second day out of Lampung I just lay in bed, jumping to the port hole and pressing my nose against the window every few minutes when the boat lurched. The fridge and chair in my cabin, not to mention all my belongings, slid from side to side making sleep difficult. Recently consumed meals rose from my stomach and seemed keen to exit via my mouth – I held firm. The accommodation was all at the front of the boat meaning that when the bow soared into the air and slammed back down again, the contact often made the noise of a gunshot that rendered sleep impossible. I found comfort when I spoke to the captain. A grumpy old seadog with tattoos (the last of which he got aged 15), a bushy moustache and ever-present sandals and socks, he told me he barely slept during my time on the boat – it was the worst weather he had seen in years on this stretch of water. He jokingly blamed my presence. And that’s coming from a man who has been at sea for 45 years! Good timing Oli. Still, at least I got over my fear of boats.

As I got used to the swell, days began to follow a pattern. I would sleep until 9ish, making myself a peanut butter and banana sandwich for breakfast before settling into a movie before lunch – the DVD collection on-board was unexpected but very welcome in the conditions. The Mess Man rang the crew’s mess (nicknamed Manilla) when lunch was ready and I would head below deck to the officers’ mess to tuck into some surprisingly good western food. If the Danish Chief Mate and Icelandic Engineer weren’t sleeping then they would be there too. Both over 60, generally they just moaned about life at sea. After lunch I would head up to the bridge and chat with Paulino, the Philipino First Mate, study the ship’s charts and ask him ignorant questions. Then it would be another couple of movies because reading made me feel sick. Dinner was at 5.30pm and then I’d head to my cabin and try and get some kip. On day four I found out that necking a couple of allergy tablets makes sleeping very easy – not sure how healthy it is but I slept well that night.

And while I relaxed, watched movies and wondered how people live at sea for months at a time, the 12 Philipino crew members worked. They cleaned for 12 hours a day. Because Australian quarantine is so strict they had to make sure the boat was spotless upon arrival in Darwin. They were always at work by 5am and in bed by 7pm, emptying the boat of cow poo, manure and food. I was surprised on the last day when they re-painted the entire deck. It can’t be much of a life, 6 months at sea followed by a couple at home with family. One of the reasons I began my bike ride was because I wanted some fun, to see the world. These Philipino workers were just the latest example of people I have met who don’t have that choice – speaking to them helped to put my journey into perspective.

It was a great little mini-adventure and I’m so pleased I didn’t fly. I am very grateful to Elders, the North Australian Cattle Company and the Danish shipping company Corral Lines for letting me hitch. Elders explained that it is not something that any of the companies generally do, so I am grateful for their sponsorship. But now it’s Sunday evening. I’ve got an early start towards Litchfield in the morning. I’m apprehensive about this leg as it will be a tough one. But at the end there is a cold beer waiting for me in Brisbane…only about 60 days away now!

Pic below – all my kit in Darwin, ready for most things the Outback may throw at me!

12 Comments leave one →
  1. Martin permalink
    September 26, 2010 6:21 pm

    Brilliant Oli! The home-stretch… Wow. Ypres, Ghent and Tervuren must seem light years ago, but we’re all still with you.

  2. Becca permalink
    September 26, 2010 7:09 pm

    60 days left – wow – reckon you should cycle back too?

  3. September 27, 2010 6:17 am

    Can’t believe you’ve reached Oz!! …and just as the Ashes squad has been announced too. Good timing! Good luck for the journey through the bush.

  4. September 27, 2010 6:54 pm

    What a crazy adventure!!! A 20 foot swell, WOW! So, glad you survived haha. Have the BEST time in Oz.

  5. Stuart permalink
    September 27, 2010 9:57 pm

    We have such fun reading your blogs, as you say the daily moans seem very trivial alongside most peoples lives.What an incredible experiance you are having. Hope theres plenty of water in the desert. Keep pedalling youll make it in style. LOL S ,S ,S, and L

  6. Kate and Jono permalink
    September 27, 2010 10:52 pm

    Sammy, opening text very Levi Strauss! Delighted you got to experience the ‘other’! Keep pedalling my man. Love Sammy x

  7. September 28, 2010 12:11 pm

    Hi Oli,

    Well done on reaching Oz. Enjoy the rest of the trip !

    I’m with Becca, think you should cycle back too 😉


  8. Dan permalink
    September 28, 2010 2:03 pm

    Laughed out loud at the VB comment. Try some Coopers Pale Ale when you get the chance – after five years in Oz, I seriously cannot fault it. Good luck in the outback.

  9. October 6, 2010 7:27 am

    Hey Oli !!!

    Really pleased to hear about your progress, well done for reaching Oz right on cue. I hope that the poms raise their game for you out there.
    We’re preparing for the launch over Himalayas now so might be out of touch for a while, but will check out the ashes news once we emerge from China 🙂

    Good luck and enjoy !

  10. Abdullah permalink
    October 7, 2010 3:11 pm

    Hope you’ve got enough vegemite sandwiches for the trip! (“Living in a land down under” springs to mind – maybe you’ve got it on your MP3?).

    I think it’s time you left the “western” world of bars, beer and fights. You deserve better than that. ;-))

    Keep in touch with your fellow Pom – we’re always thinking about you!


  11. October 7, 2010 3:14 pm

    heyy, you’ve only got one ball left? shame on you!!
    (would like to add other comments to the kit photo – maybe I’ll descend on Flickr if it’s there!)


  1. Cycling On A Corrugated Roof Covered With Kangaroos « Cycling To The Ashes

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