Throw another cliché on the barbie, you Flaming Galah!

October in Anchorage is a month of riotous revolution. The tree-scattered avenues, loping ground for wayward moose, burn deliciously with the vivid hues of autumn. Adding to the drama is the first snow fall that peppers the mountain tops of the Chugach range – ‘termination dust’ in local parlance – which foretells the end of summer. The month passed as fast as I gained weight; industrious binge eating translated to seven kilograms in five weeks. The blame for this extra blubber lies squarely at the feet of culinary titans Joni and Kait – thanks for the extra belly guys.

So following the demise of my Californian tan, my skin now an Alaskan brand of white, and with just the hint of two perky moobs and enough money for the two year jaunt back to the UK (what I have come to think of as ‘The Home Straight’), I went through the well-practiced ritual of goodbye to the last of my American friends. Four flights and almost three days after the retreating circuit board of Anchorage slipped from view, Australia – the world’s largest island nation, winked at me through the plane window amid the predawn gloom. The plane’s nose gently tipped seawards, the rolling waves patterned the once uniform expanse of blue, and then just the amorphous hint of my new stomping ground emerged, where land, sea and cloud were muddled. Beyond the waves I thought, out there in the fuzz, were Australians in their natural habitat. The park. The beach. The pub. Mainly the pub.

I have never set foot on Australian soil. My impression of the place therefore was forged in part from the antics of beautiful and vacuous people in the Australian soap operas I watched as a youth and the three cliché-ridden sources of insight that all begin ‘Crocodile Dun…’ It might be half a world away from the UK and superficially its antithesis – an arid, vast and indomitable continent verses a drizzly, cluttered, dainty isle, but Australia might just have more in common with my homeland than anywhere. It’s not just the obvious – the heritage, our taste for certain sports, the monarchy, a society in which the ingrained alcoholism is worn as a badge of pride. It’s the minutiae too, the less explicable qualities – the Saharan quality to our sense of humour and the (possibly genetic) predisposition to enjoy marmite / vegemite foremost among a range of other shared charms and peccadilloes.

My old mate Eddie (a bonafide girl despite the name, and not the post-op kind) was the familiar ray of light I needed in Melbourne to ease the jet-lag and disorientation. As well as being a blast to hang out with, she is also a masseuse in training, so I set aside my busy schedule to help her by allowing her to practice on me – a tiresome sacrifice. Lawn bowls in the sun with beer yet another testing compromise I begrudgingly agreed to make for the sake of our friendship.

With a goodbye to Melbourne and temporary goodbye to my awesome mate Eddie, I set out towards Sydney. Something was skipping. I decided to heed the advice of a proper mechanic on my way out. ‘Oh man, oh dear me, oh Jesus’ he lamented, taking in the rusty bolts, the cable ties holding rustier things on and the rattling bottom bracket, as if he were a vet examining a lame horse. He issued the bleakest prognosis possible with the words – ‘It’s the hub mate’. Anything else can be easily fixed or replaced in a city like Melbourne, but when a Rohloff Hub goes awry, you just look at it for a while in dismay, sweat, shout something un-blog-able and call Rohloff, hoping there’s someone within a thousand miles who can actually fix one, because often there’s not. It happened though that there was someone – quite literally one man, in the whole vast nation of Australia, who is qualified to open them up and repair them. I learnt that he resides in Queensland but as luck would have it he was visiting Sydney in a couple of weeks. If I could ride that far my hub could be replaced. So off I went, with only 8 of the 14 gears working, northbound on the coastal highway.

I opted first for some back roads through grand Victorian forests, redolent of flowering Banksia, where termites were drawn out of the wood by the heat and fluttered through air that trilled with cicadas. In Australia though it’s the birdsong that struck me most and I was encompassed by all manner of hoots and screeches and whoops so unique that fitting analogies are hard to impart, though the Laughing Kookaburra sounds a bit like a chimpanzee, and another anonymous bird is a decent mimic of a hyperactive seven year with a severe bout of whooping cough who has been given a kazoo to play with.

A Sulphur-Crested Cockatoo
The Superb Fairy-Wren
Reunited with the road after a two month hiatus I relished once again the rituals – poring over maps, washing in rivers, using sandals as cup holders, slouching with indiscretion on any patch of ground I felt like and slurping noodles from saucepans in a manner akin to an escaped prisoner of war. No emails or to do lists. Life, distilled. It could reek of boredom, but it felt luxurious.

‘I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.’ – Robert Louis Stephenson

Australians are a well-travelled bunch and I have met many on my meanderings. Some were even coherent and not every parley involved an unintelligible jumble of words slurred by a 21 year old backpacker face down in regurgitated cheese burger and vodka whilst writhing around the bathroom floor of a South American hostel. The hard-drinking Australian male you see is another, well-earned, cliché.

So having met them I know that Australians relish a good sense of humour, it’s knowledge the marketing companies have used to their advantage too. The campaign to stop people getting hit by trains in Victoria is entitled ‘dumb ways to die’ and features a variety of cute characters killing themselves in increasingly idiotic ways – burning one’s hair off etc. and then crossing the tracks for a dare. A cartoon jelly-bean shaped man is pictured sawn in half and looking a bit embarrassed. You can’t imagine this technique working in America – the response might be along the lines of ‘Who says I can’t burn my own hair off, that’s my constitutional right goddam it!’
This one had me in stitches
Australians abroad love propagating the myth that they live in a deadly hinterland of creeping, slithering nasties all well equipped to do in the unwary visitor. Some tasty facts do back up the claim though, for instance nine of the ten most poisonous land snakes on earth live here as well as a mélange of irksome arachnids, but winding up foreigners is nothing more than a local sport, I told myself. I was feeling pretty safe so far. Things just aren’t that bad.

Wooooooosh, shhmk.

Something smashed into my helmet. Wooooooosh, shhmk. What the hell!

I scouted the sky until my eyes found my circling attacker. I pedalled furiously, six times over the next few minutes I felt something wack into my helmet whilst my neck retracted into my torso, not daring to look up in case I got a faceful of beak, claws and feathers. I knew the culprit. This was clearly the infamous Australian magpie which is well known for swooping when people get too close to the nest during the Spring breeding season.

When the first migrants arrived on Australia’s shores a black and white bird could be reasonably called a magpie, though really this is an insult to taxonomy. In the UK magpies are timid things, in Australia it’s a vicious, dive bombing Kamikaze menace. Australia’s magpies are ubiquitous, so the tactic of swooping anyone who gets close to the nest has clearly aided them in the ‘survival of the evilest’ – the backbone of Australia’s more heinous version of the evolutionary process. A cyclist must move at roughly the same velocity as whatever predator (now presumably rendered extinct by Australia’s other deadly beasts) the magpie has evolved this vicious defence against. I am therefore a prime target. Only male magpies attack and interestingly, they attack more men than women. It has been reported that over an Australian’s lifetime 90% of males and 72% of females have been swooped by a magpie. (My favourite stat though is that of the females swooped, 60% to 75% were believed to have “brutish or masculine features”!). Some bikers draw eyes on their helmets, it is said magpies are less likely to swoop if you are watching them, and others fasten protruding cable ties to their helmets making the magpies disinclined to get low overhead, though also making it appear as if your elderly cohabiting mother has fashioned you a crap outfit for a Star Wars convention.

There’s a huge level of endemism in Australia’s fauna. Presumably, because of the country’s geographic isolation, there was a kind of evolutionary arms race in which one creature developed a particularly savage sting, bite or mode of attack and having upped the ante, others had to follow, or die out. If nature’s one-upmanship continues Australia will soon be populated by creatures of ‘X men’ ilk – koalas will have evolved laser guns for eyes, invisible rodents will develop the ability to morph into dragons. To find out exactly what Australia’s most vicious creatures looked like I did the responsible thing and turned to google, only to find that nature’s sociopaths in Australia are grouped together not in top ten lists but in top thirty. Amongst the offenders I found the Common Death Adder – three words that you hope never to find in sequence.

After history, geography and biology class in Australian primary schools it’s a wonder the kids actually opt to play outside at all – Australia it seems is not a very safe place to be. Wild fires, deadly beasts and the legacy of a host of pioneering explorers of the continent having succumbed somewhere along the way, if they were lucky it was on the return leg. It’s a minor miracle too that parents allow their kids outside without forcing them into wearing impenetrable exoskeletons. The national language in Australia is not actually English at all, it’s screaming.

Sydney Herald, 19th Nov

A 33 year old British cycle tourist was mauled to death by a Wollobangithon this week, the 83rd such fatal attack in NSW this month. The cyclist had accidentally ventured too close to the creatures invisible lair though its not clear at this stage whether it was the animal’s four foot long sword-tongue or it’s chainsaw tail that ripped the 30 cm whole in the man’s abdomen, or indeed whether the cause of death was related to the acidic fog frequently exhaled by the creature in response to a trivial threat. The decomposing remains were found by the road, three of the creatures seven heads were feasting on the man.

Hours of fun can be had with a map of Australia amusing yourself with the unlikely place names. A bizarre cluster of phonemes speaks of their indigenous origins – there are the delights of Wagga Wagga, Mullumbimby, Bong Bong and Humpybong. There are equally hilarious English derived names too – with Mount Buggery and Smiggin Holes among them. So it wasn’t much of a surprise when I cycled past a place that could have been an oblique reference by an author of erotic fiction:

‘Slowly, expertly, he kissed her and then moved downwards, tracing his tongue ever closer to her waiting…’

I left the highway and rode up into the mountains of the Great Dividing Range. On the way I caught glimpses of grey kangaroos and wombats, but they were all two dimensional and closely acquainted with the asphalt. The squally wind drove the pungent air my way, heavy with the scent of decay. Almost every kilometre lay the twisted, wasting remains of another carcass. Motorbikers passed by, rotating their legs in imitation of a cyclist, a sort of salute to bikers I’d never seen before but that had me chuckling aloud every time. I was heading for some rough roads that looked tempting on my map – the wiggly ones that I like best, far from main arteries, cutting through national parks.

‘Stunning mate, absolutely stunning’ came one appraisal of the Wadibilliga Trail from a local man in the bakery when I introduced him to my proposed route via my map. ‘Used to take my girlfriends there, you know, before I got married.’ His gaze then stretched to the corner of the room as he became briefly adrift in nostalgia, and then he let out a long and tortured breath, half sigh and half groan. ‘I hate my wife’ he reported, matter-of-factly, and was gone.

With each turn I made the road slimmed, the terrain got rockier and the surrounds wilder. I waded through a river a foot deep and made crooked passages up steep grades. Around me trees filtered enough light to coax out the gold glow of wild honeysuckle. Then a swift sweep of a Jurassic tail from behind a tree as a monitor lizard scattered. Wallabies, alive this time, leapt through the trees and up verges in escape. Some would turn and observe when they were a safer distance away and I could reach for that camera…

A Blue Tongued Skink

A dead Wombat
An Echidna (spiny anteater)

A particularly rough stretch of road had me guessing if I was off course, but then over the rise a view flooded through the trees of a great yawning valley and the road took a histrionic swoon down its side. Gobsmacked and delighted, I began the bum bruising descent to the river with two punctures for my trouble, and arrived into a peaceful sun-dappled campsite amid a grove of gum trees.

More dangerous than any of Australia’s wild beasts is ignoramious motoristus – The Common Australian Driver. Back on the highway overtaking lanes came in expense of the shoulder putting me in direct competition for space with HGVs and boy racers and biker gangs and the roving grey nomads with caravans and no desire to compensate for their extra width. There are signs in Australia asking you to call a certain number in the event you come across an injured wild animal and the style of driving made me wonder whether some locals care more about the wildlife than the bikers. Perhaps soon there will be a number to call if you hit and maim a cyclist. Someone would come with a van to take the rider to an enclosure where there would be other cyclists pedalling around in circles, all in different stages of rehabilitation, being bottle fed Lucozade by teenage volunteers. Eventually the bikers are released to join the other wilder cyclists braving the extremes of Australia’s main roads.

Cycle touring in this part of Australia is bitter sweet – to make any progress you have to use the busy and irritating highways with aggressive drivers and little room, and to visit somewhere off route, maybe on the coast, could be a half day round trip. On the other hand the back roads offer some of the best cycle touring anywhere in the world, though to stay on these would require twice as much time to get to your destination. There are other pay offs – great tourist information, free maps, public toilets, fascinating wildlife and of course those friendly locals. Australia was never high on my list of bicycle touring destinations – but it should have been, for the sheer number of scenic back road options alone.

The penultimate day on the road to Sydney: a Sunday, a day for old friends to congregate in local pubs, clinging to the dregs of the weekend, hair of the dog. A warm wind. By nightfall I was cruising through one of the affluent coastal neighbourhoods in the hunt for a place to camp and then wheeled my bike down to the sand to sleep to the sound of the lapping Pacific tide and think about how lucky I am that Claire will fly to Sydney and ride with me back to England. For those who don’t know Claire she featured on this blog after we biked together for three weeks in Canada. I’m chuffed as chips she’s joining me to ride back home. And in a happy coincidence the going rate for western brides paid by Middle Eastern sheikhs is roughly the cost of a new touring bicycle, so if nothing else, having her along is a good insurance policy. Claire arrives in a few short days with her bicycle, we plan to ride north to Cairns before flying to Indonesia. Claire is recording local musicians as she travels – you can check out The Bicycle Tracks to follow the story of her unfurling adventure and the musical journey that goes with it.

So eventually I cycled over the majestic Bald Hill and Sea Cliff Bridge and into Sydney via the Royal National Park under a looming escarpment, across the watery bit on a 1930’s built boat, gawking at the mansions of the financial elite, their grounds ablaze with flowering jacaranda, before hitting shore and riding to Peter’s house, another of my second cousins. For any Sydney-ites reading I’m giving a public presentation about my ride on the evening of the 6th of November in the city centre – its free and seating is limited: you can register here.

I have loved learning about Australia so far and getting beyond at least some of the clichés. I’ll leave you with a few allegedly genuine questions posed online to Australia’s tourist board by prospective visitors, and the champion responses they were provided – a classic example of people’s ignorance about the country but more to the point, a nice example of Australian japery…

Can you give me some information about hippo racing in Australia? (USA)

A: A-fri-ca is the big triangle shaped continent south of Europe. Aus-tra-lia is that big island in the middle of the Pacific which does not… oh forget it. Sure, the hippo racing is every Tuesday night in Kings Cross. Come naked.

Does it ever get windy in Australia? I have never seen it rain on TV, so how do the plants grow? (UK)

A: We import all plants fully grown and then just sit around watching them die.

I have a question about a famous animal in Australia, but I forget its name. It’s a kind of bear and lives in trees. (USA)

A: It’s called a Drop Bear. They are so called because they drop out of gum trees and eat the brains of anyone walking underneath them. You can scare them off by spraying yourself with human urine before you go out walking.

I have been assured the last one is not actually a joke so I have been collecting my own urine for the last week and have added it to spray bottle so that Claire and I will be fully protected. Claire if you’re reading – don’t worry about these Drop Bears. I will bring my urine spray bottle to the airport.

Thank yous: Dave for reminding me that sometimes it’s OK to laugh with Welsh people rather than just at them, Sage, The Bicycle Commuters of Anchorage (BCA) and the Alaskan World Affairs Council for an amazing job helping me raise funds and every lovely soul who voted for me to win the Neurofen’s Big Lives Trust competition (which I did) or who donated via my crowd-funding page, perks and karma coming your way.

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Comments (10)

  • Avatar



    Hi Steve

    As an Aussie, this post has brought back lots of warm and fuzzy memories.

    As kids (long before the compulsory helmet laws), we'd ride through the park with ice-cream containers on our heads to prevent magpie pecks. A big black marker and a few eyes scribbled on the top used to do the trick.

    When you get to Queensland, this might help:

    Bonne route!


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    Steve, your forgetting to protect yourself from the Bunyip and Yowie. But don't worry, singing in tune whilst dancing the running man is apparently the best defence.


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    Hope you will enjoy Australia as I did last june. It's worth to see the blue mountains althoug it might not to be on your way but it's not far away from Sydney 😉
    Greetings from Dublin


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    Your entry reminds me so much of my bike tour several years back in Oz, from Sydney to Warnambool on the coast, then Devonport to Hobart going 'round the west of Tassie. The overwhelming memory I have of those two months is of the sound of bellbirds, sometimes cacophonous, and the smell of eucalyptus. The birds of Australia, and their calls, are second to none. Do curl through the Blue Mountains and the Hinterlands north of them as you make your way toward and past Brisbane. Nimbin is odd and interesting on any number of levels; Cooktown is an amazing outpost of civilization that is unto itself. Make sure you connect with the locals before you venture north of there. And don't laugh off the "nasties" altogether – they're real enough to warrant respect, especially when you are in croc and jelly areas on land and sea. Make sure to hit a bar in the middle of Queensland and see what you understand in between some of the oddest and interesting sayings I've ever heard in the English (sort of) language.


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    John Berry


    Steve: (1) I was at the northern tip of Unst a couple of years ago and was dive-bombed by a Great Auk, I was on foot and thought I had glimpsed a lamb scurrying ahead of me through the heather, but it was the bird's chick. Thank goodness I still had on my helmet!
    (2) Pity you're going straight to Cairns and on out. Why not go the long way, via the Nullarbor? There's a charity ride from Cairns to Karumba at the end of June. 7 days to go 780 km across the base of the Cape York peninsula. I've been planning to do it for years, but never got my act together. A really tough ride would be Cairns to Cape York itself: you'd have it all there, mate, from salt-water crocs (you have to ford several large rivers) to millions of leeches. On the way to Cairns, I can recommend the inland route for the northern part: Carnarvons NP, Charters Towers, Innot Hot Springs (my parents lived there), Ravenshoe, Herberton, Atherton (very English), Mareeba (very Texan and Italian), Kuranda, Cairns. The latter stretch carries heavy truck traffic and can be scary on the hairpins, so you can go down the Gillies to Cairns instead: many more hairpins, but almost no trucks.


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    Awesome. Hope you catch a dingo.


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    Luke Cape


    It's great to read that you won the competition, and are continuing on the road! I've been reading your blog since you were in Africa, and have since rode a bit of the route you followed in Africa myself. Happy travels in Australia, and keep writing these posts – you've got a knack for travel writing I must say!


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    Always entertaining to read how others see us. Your humour reminds me of Bill Bryson. It was good to share morning tea in Gayndah. I shall look forward to reading more.


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    Peter Millington


    Brilliant. Brings back memories of living in Oz in the early 90's and being thought of as a very odd Pom biking 15k to work every day.


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