The Land of the Misty Sunglasses

A Rainbow Lorikeet munching on an Illawarra Flame Tree, Queensland
Summer days in Queensland are whacked by a hail of meteoric commotions that arrive without warning and linger for as long as traveling bullets. It doesn’t drizzle here, the build up to a downpour takes seconds. A drop or two bedew our panniers, and then it pelts down with the gusto of a power shower. The patter from falling sheets of rain quickly overtakes our voices, and minutes later dies a sudden death as spears of sunlight sear into our rain coats. There’s more: territorial magpies swoop and cockroaches the size of hamsters smash into our head-torches so that nights resound with our yelps which mingle with the screeches and beating wings of fruit bats as prodigious as any of Tolkien’s creations. There’s a cacophony of cicadas too and the simian guffaw of kookaburras which explodes without warning from the forest into which the sun abruptly plummets, within minutes blackness consumes the day. Australia has us on tenterhooks, we’re always wondering where the next drama will spring from.

A surprise in the plug socket
I’ve cycled in hotter, wetter, more defeating places, but amid the unrelenting fever of Colombian jungles or Ethiopian deserts concerned citizens didn’t stop to exhort me to abandon my journey and fly home immediately, in Australia scores of passers by do so, indirectly, each day. Partly this might be because Claire exudes a rosy hue – more from exercise than from the sun – but which inspires people to take action. The manner in which we are warned about the perils of a bike ride through Queensland in the summer is akin to the response sensible parents might offer the six year old who demands a Black Mamba for Christmas. The assumptions are clear – you have no idea what you’re doing, say their cautious pauses between probing questions, their sympathetic head tilt. You haven’t done even the most cursory research, have you? They list the tribulations to highlight our folly – always the heat, the rain, the insects, sometimes the dengue fever; they compare Queensland in December to a swamp, and inevitably they finish with the daily lesson : ‘It’s not the heat that’ll get you, it’s the humidity’. Occasionally they dive in with bare faced sarcasm: ‘Picked a nice cool time of year to go biking!’. I return their smirk but with the added sliver of a look which I hope conveys a message of ‘Go away’ and perhaps ‘I want to hurt you.’

These very Australian ‘One-Line Wonders’ as we’ve starting calling them, can be as welcome as they can be unwanted. A chirpy ‘You doing it the hard way then!’ or ‘good on yers!’ can herald an invitation to camp nearby, and we enjoy having a laugh with those who judge us brave over stupid, suspecting we’re probably a little of both.

‘Uhhh! Stephen, I’m broken! I feel like trifle! I feel like a dropped trifle and the dogs licking at it on the floor!’ We’re getting to know each other and I know by now that this is a bad sign. When Claire’s feeling particularly defeated she talks in culinary metaphors, feeling like custard or warm yogurt can be the antecedent to a crumpled heap of human by the road, she’s never reached the trifle stage before and I’m worried, it sounds like it might be worse than custard. But there are ways and means to cope with the ever present heat. Soon afterwards Claire strolls into a gas station, on first glance she appears to be perusing the cold drink selection, but there is something unusual in her adopted posture, arching her back, her midriff protrudes into the fridge, brushing up against a row of Pepsi cans. I join her, feigning indecision in event the staff are watching, gradually extending my thigh to meet the 7UP and catching wafts of icy air up my shorts. Eventually, as I’m busy estimating how much of my ass I could squeeze beside the ginger ale, a staff member is sent on patrol, probably tasked with finding out why two people are behaving so strangely, so we re-enter the furnace.

In the coastal town of Mackay we garnered information about quiet back roads from Peter and Jackie, touring cyclists and our affable hosts. Soon we were riding among flush, sun-dashed fields of sugarcane, massive in scope, which melded with the horizon. The leaves shivered in an idle breeze. Gradually hillocks of forest spotted the crops and were decorated by scrims of cloud. The cane fields were soon overtaken by more forest as we skimmed the outskirts of Eugella National Park. Gum trees were riven by shrubs of pastel pink flowers and raptors circled high above us. We reached Boulder Creek with a couple of hours until the sun began it’s impatient plunge beneath the tropical horizon. Tangled vines and creepers sought ownership of the river, invading the corridor above it, and we plunged into the water to discover shrimps and turtles and then set up camp on the banks. Crocodile free swimming holes are a luxury here.

Tully is the wettest town in Australia – one year almost eight metres of falling water splashed onto it’s streets and shops and residents, twelve times the annual average of London. As we cycled through the town the air was so muggy it weighed upon us like gravity. We stopped under trees, cowering in their nets of shade, wiping off old, hot sweat that refused to join the sodden, cloying air, and swiping away the harassing marsh flies – harbingers of rain. It’s a predictable pattern : the wind quickens from a murky horizon and the fuzzy hills, a drop or two splash us though overhead the sky is a broad, unbroken desert of blue – the drops have been wrenched by gusts from the maw of a traveling storm, still kilometres away. We make eyes at each other now. The sky is soon mussed, building clouds are scattered among leaden fractures which in turn wrestle with half a rainbow and become lost in a clump of pale and distant cumulus. Then it’s on us, and the rain falls in sheets. The patter eclipses the rustle of the sugarcane, and the dulcet wafts of cut cane and fetid stink of fallen mangoes are drowned out too. Sometimes there’s a bus stop or a gas station where we can huddle inside, where someone will saunter by, pausing just briefly to tilt their heads, narrow their eyes and remind us: ‘Not a good day for a ride, is it?’. 

But it’s over soon and we’re off again, the sliding air shedding rainwater from our clothes as we pedal, warm water splashing up between my toes. Trucks surge past trailing comet tails of spray. Two shaggy and sodden emus amble through the scrub. A troop of grey kangaroos just watch us, ears pricked. The trials of summer biking here are assuaged by these wild spectators, by the familiar tailwinds that rush at our backs and rear panniers like tiny hands propelling us through the puddles, and by the exotic fruit on offer – the mangoes, passion fruit, melon and lychees – from roadside vendors. Just as suddenly as the rain comes and the sun departs and some wild creature bays, croaks or trills comes a realisation just as acute and just as intense – that biking in Queensland at any time of year is fantastic.

With our arrival in the tropics road signs forewarn our new enemies – cyclones, crocodiles, dengue. Australia can’t hide from its disaster-ravaged history – we passed logs wedged high in trees and sprawling riverside debris from the unprecedented floods near Gayndah, past the scorched forests of NSW and the flattened ones near Cardwell in the wake of the category five Cyclone Yasi three years ago. It all helps bring a feeling of unease, of being hunted, augmented by the locals who warn us about gimpi gimpi (or the less imaginatively titled ‘stinging tree’ which invites a circuitous conversation ‘What’s it called?’ ‘The stinging tree’. ‘Yeah, whats it called?’ ‘The Stinging Tree’) an innocuous looking shrub which injects pain inducing neurotoxins into anyone who brushes past it. There are crocs too, so we cast our eyes down to the turbid waters of creeks as we ride over bridges, hunting for those lambent eyes, and lest we forget the centimeter sized jellyfish called Irukandji which lurk off coast and boast venom 100 times more potent than that of a cobra. On one occasion we left a tourist information centre trembling with cyclone preparation kits in hand and advice to camp in somewhere called Alligator Nest Picnic Area. It would be funny, if it wasn’t all so terrifying.

Townsville meant that Cairns, our last stop in Australia and the end of a 4000 km ride from Melbourne, was in spitting distance. Having paid for accommodation only once in three months of traveling Australia (a campsite) we decided one night in a cheap hostel was in order, a very minor splurge so we could physically and mentally reboot. Cycle touring breeds a deep appreciation of what you might otherwise take for granted. Showers, beds and roofs are now all a little unfamiliar and indulgent. We set off the following day towards Big Crystal Creek – a swimming hole we plunged into, greedy for relief from the heat.

Insects rule the tropics. There are ants, lots of them. We camp on them, sit on them, and find them milling about our food which is enclosed in impenetrable ant-proof panniers and boxes. There’s a cadence to the trolling thrum of cicadas that waxes and wanes as we ride through pockets of them and I will never forget Claire’s manic dance around the road with Lycra around her ankles – it was the day I learnt that going for a pee can be complicated by a centipede in your pants. Nights are spent sweating more than sleeping – lying motionless on our backs, adhered to our sleeping mats, wincing as we listen to the shrill buzz of a solitary mosquito intruder. We are in a world of sweat rash, of smelly feet, of misty sunglasses, of moldy food. And it’s times like this, hard times, when I wonder whether the joy of cycle touring is actually just imagined, or relative, that it’s just a sequence of discomforts chased by a more memorable recovery which feels good only because the unpleasant thing has stopped – like taking off a tight pair of shoes – not really enjoyable, just relief. But the hard times never last and soon I’m optimistic enough to realize I was just being grumpy.

The region west of Cairns is known as the Atherton Tablelands and seemed an enticing adventure before unhealthy amounts Christmas pudding rendered me immobile on someone’s couch. We climbed up in shadows cast by Cedar and Walnut, beside us a dense and titillatingly mysterious under-story of orchids, cycads and shrubs which could hide all sorts of extraordinary beasts. We dodged Wait-a-wile, a barbed vine which droops down to the road and threatened to snag and then wrench us off our bikes. I like too it’s other colloquial name : Lawyer Vine. Once this thorny plant becomes attached it will not let you go (until it has drawn blood).

We took a day off to relax in a campsite and mosey through the patches of rain forest near Malanda, primed to catch glimpses of platypus, pythons and tree kangaroos but instead just finding scores of brush turkey. Then a night of gabbing away to Neil and Claire and their family over wine and a Sunday roast before pedaling through rolling hills, and I pondered the misleading analogy of the region to a table. I wonder if coming round for dinner at the home of whoever came up with the epithet would be an adventure – passing the salt might be more complicated if you have to negotiate peaks and crevasses of mahogany.

The road to Cairns was a fun-filled slalom as we negotiated the 263 descendant turns of the Gillies Highway. We rolled into Cairns just before Christmas, Claire as fit as Cadel Evans and often leaving me behind straining for oxygen, to Ian and Sarah and their two year old champion swimmer and future Wallabies scrum half William. Ian and I worked together in Whiston Hospital as first year docs many moons ago and shared a flat, he now works for the flying doctors but has begun the process of Australianation by freaking out visitors to the country, in my case with tales of kangaroos that disembowel people and other on the surface unlikely, yet in the context of Australia, immediately believable calamities. This was my forth Christmas away from home and my first traditional Christmas feast complete with Roast potatoes and Yorkshire Puddings. I’m still recovering.

I usually offer up a polite but firm ‘no thank you’ when I meet people on days off my bicycle who invite me out for a bike ride, relishing the prospect as much as a bath of Irukandji, but when Ian, a connoisseur of the world class mountain bike trails that twist and bound through the nearby mountains, offered to take me and Claire out on bikes without panniers, with suspension and that weighed about as much as my tent, we jumped at the chance. Despite some teething troubles which involved skidding around preternaturally tight corners emitting squeals which carried equal measures of prayer and blasphemy, I surpassed my primary ambition of mere survival and bloody loved it.

Australian drivers still fill me with rage as they shout ‘Get off the bloody road!’ or ‘You should pay rego!’ (the Aussie version of a road tax – these people are too dim and inbred to understand the concept of rego not to mention the unquantifiable health, social and environmental effects of fuel guzzling vehicles). It must be that tailgating and side-swiping pedestrians and bikers has been incorporated into the Australian driving test, I think, after another truck belts past, a hair’s breadth between us, sucking me helplessly towards the wheels. I muse too about the driving habits of serial killers and wife beating misogynists. It’s not bad driving that’s the problem, I decide, or a brief lapse in judgment, it runs deeper than that. These people are devoid of empathy, their bolshy over taking maneuvers speak volumes about exactly how much they give a shit about fellow humans. There is good news on the horizon though – a new law in Queensland will soon penalize drivers for getting within 1 or 1.5 metres of a cyclist and when it comes into force I hope all cycle tourers in this part of Australia set the Go Pros rolling and deliver SD cards to local police stations.

Our plans have been in flux of late but one has finally come together: I’ll spend the next three weeks walking solo the length of the pacific island of New Caledonia with a bare minimum of kit in search of a story and magazine feature. Claire will be traveling to Tasmania where she will be riding around the island. We will meet back in Cairns towards the end of January, fly to Darwin and then to Dili in East Timor before hopping to Java and Sumatra and Borneo.

Finally my good friend Oli who you may remember from this guest blog post, needs your help. He’s made it to the semi-final of the Spontaneity Champion competition which slammed into his life and left a trail of destruction in its wake. Now an entire family’s Christmas is in danger of being obliterated by this hideous phenomenon. Oliver, a once ‘normal’ individual, has been reduced to a grotesque state by his obsession with an online voting process. He remains constantly glued to the screen of his laptop and smart phone and is consuming paracetamol packets at a time, in a futile attempt to stave off the crippling headaches brought on by excessive screen time. His mind is fragmenting under the strain of this process and his family feel helpless. Christmas is descending into mania for the Davy family – but you have the power to help. Follow this link and click on the pink button to give Oliver Davy some respite. Enjoy your New Year in the knowledge that you have contributed to the rescue of someone else’s.

Thank yous this month – Mad Props go to Ian, Sarah and William (for an awful lot, but especially the his and hers boxer shorts emblazoned with cartoon santas), Neil, Claire and family, Peter and Jackie, and of course Australia – you have been a joy-filled playground, a worthy adversary and a cuddly, endearing, slightly pissed and eccentric friend. Cheers mate.

A Christmas present from Claire

Two go vagabonding

It’s just inevitable as men get older – they develop a receding sense of humour…

The sound of an engine dies, a car door clicks closed and then two voices fill the night. I walk down the driveway outside my second cousin Peter’s house in Sydney and find Claire lumbering under a bulky cardboard bike-filled box. The three weeks we spent riding through Canada back in June feels like years ago. Champagne seems appropriate, though tea is all we have, so we cheers mugs, catch up and muse about a bike ride half way around the world together.

Remembering vividly how I questioned myself and my reasons as I pedalled away from London in 2010, I wanted to instill some extra excitement about the journey into Claire, enough to eclipse the sense of foreboding and self-doubt that start lines can bring with them. So we met up with a bunch of mutual friends as well as Henry and Jamie, AKA The Blazing Saddles, two fellow poms who had arrived into Sydney a year and half ago after about two years of pedalling from the UK (both met girls within hours of arrival and have been comfortably holed up in Sydney ever since). Alongside our mate Neil and over a round of snakebites we sketched a blobby Asia in my journal and teased out their hard won wisdom. It worked – we walked out of the pub into a world full of promise.

I cycled out of Sydney with a new Rohloff Hub (my third) after a mechanical failure, and our exit was the breezy jaunt that I wished leaving any city would be. A ferry moved us from the iconic surrounds of central Sydney with its venerable Opera House up the coast to Manly to more blooming jacaranda, the visual equivalent of hugging a kitten. It was our first step on a two year adventure together – Brisbane 1000 km to our north, tropical Cairns and some crocodiles a couple of thousand kilometres above that, then islands that ooze mystery and exoticism: Timor, Java, Sumatra and Borneo, before a jigsaw of animated lands in South East Asia, and eventually the Himalayas, terrestrial Gods, chased by the graceful Pamirs. It was this daydream, imbued with sentimentality, which inspired me to throw my arms around Claire as we stood together watching the opera house diminish behind the churning wake of our boat. On the harbour a mob of drunk men responded with a verbal torrent of ‘Go on mate!’ before one of them dropped his jeans. It was a beautiful moment rendered unforgettable by a strange man’s penis flapping in the breeze.

The very Australian boat to Manly had a bar, essential since the crossing takes twenty minutes and a captain and crew abruptly descending into alcohol withdrawal en route could be catastrophic. Manly had been invaded by a Saturday night jumble of rakish drinkers and so two sheepish touring cyclists wheeling their way through the high heels and hollering melee felt incongruous, as much as if we were weaving through a Middle Eastern souk.

We planned to stick vaguely to the Australian coastline to Brisbane but our passage jerked inland for a time, through the charred forests victim to recent wild fires that raged untempered for weeks across New South Wales, collectively contributing to some of the worst in recent memory. The gum trees were either black or iridescent rust, their outer bark scorched away, their gleam heightened by the drizzle, and everywhere the stench of charcoal. Signposts along the highway had been torched and the odd patch of earth still smoldered. A petrol station had exploded when the flames licked at the pumps, a huge shrimp adorned the gas station sign and was the only survivor of the blaze, looking comedic in amongst the destruction. Soon though the tranquil and unburnt forests of NSW drifted by our handlebars and wallabies hopped among the gum trees before Australia swiftly killed my buzz with a signpost: ‘koala fatalities this year = 35’.

On only our second night Claire appeared hurriedly at the tent door and told me she’d just been bitten by a spider in the toilets. Knowing we needed to figure out the culprit to know what to do next we trapped the spider inside a Tupperware box. I hoped my soothing words and veneer of calm was working on Claire, but really I was thinking ‘is that a brown recluse?’ as I peered anxiously inside the plastic (later learning these don’t live down under!). We called an ambulance. Twenty minutes later we were left feeling particularly foreign and foolish as a paramedic turned the Tupperware up towards the light, reporting back ‘just a Huntsman mate, and only a tiddler’. And then, as if we’d faded entirely from existence, they began reciting a list of the biggest and baddest of Australia’s arachnids and what they could do to you, intermittently adding things like ‘Oh yeah, that one ‘ll bite right through ya boot!’.

Eventually they turned their attention again to our little spider, which was curled up in the corner of the box and looking even more unassuming. ‘No need to kill the little guy’ one of the paramedics told us whilst inspecting the baby Huntsman, an insect we’d just learnt is one of the commonest and least revered in Australia. He tipped up the box releasing the spider not into the dense bush ten metres away but into the short grass on a direct transect between our tent and the toilet. The ambulance then set off, no doubt one of the medics was soon on the radio ‘Just another couple of pomy bastards boss…. yeah just a Huntsman…… no, no, bout a big as a blue bottle……..OK………yeah ‘cause we’ll thrash ‘em in the Ashes’.

We pedalled sections of the old Pacific Highway, fallow now in the wake of the new version and nature had begun to reclaim it, like a world post apocalypse. Off the road were unnervingly idyllic villages where I half expected to be greeted by a bearded figure in an unsullied white robe announcing ‘Friends, welcome to our community!’ before I was invited to sleep with one of his 14 wives. Sometimes it’s useful to know roughly how big a village on our route is so we can guess if it has a shop where we can stock up on supplies. I asked a local man.

‘Hi there. Just wondering about the next town, Kilcoy, is that any bigger than Esk?’
‘Well now, let me think. Jim! Jim! How many pubs are there in Kilcoy?’
Replied Jim
’There you go. Three pubs in Kilcoy, two in Esk.’ He said, as if that provided the perfect answer to the question.

Between wails of ‘Incoming!’ (code word for a magpie attack) we laughed a lot. We practised our Aussie accents, mine might only just brush convincing but Claire’s attempt sounds like she’s waterboarding a Rastafarian. I chuckle when Claire wanders about searching for her sunglasses, remonstrating, oblivious to the fact she’s wearing them. She chastises me for the inaccuracy of my eating or the fact that I call my cap Clive, that I’ve attributed some kind of personality to him and that I haven’t washed him since Peru. Then we ride on, and we suck up the quirks of Australia together.

As we approached Brisbane a series of fierce storms took hold and for days we cycled under the low rip of thunder, heads dipped over the handlebars as if that would somehow lessen the chance of a lightning strike. Torrential rain struck half a dozen times, we biked through areas in which almost 30 mm fell over 24 hours and were almost flooded one night when pools began accumulating around our tent and water seeped through our floating groundsheet. To add to the hardship the Gold Coast and passage into Brisbane was difficult to negotiate by bicycle. Unfortunately anyone intent on riding great swathes of Australia has to resign themselves to the fact that at least some of the journey will be on the busy main arteries where bikers are made to feel particularly unwelcome. And whilst we get waves and smiles from some, there seems to be more anti-cyclist sentiment in Australia than any of the 44 countries I have ridden so far.

Despite a number of rail trails Australia does not have a cycle touring infrastructure on par with the US or many countries in Europe. Roads don’t always come with shoulders, and bike lanes, even in cities, are poorly thought out (in Melbourne for example almost every bike lane I cycled ran immediately next to rows of parked cars – there’s a predictable epidemic of injured riders with more than 100 cyclists getting knocked off by opening car doors every year). Consequently Australia has a death rate three times higher per million km cycled than the Netherlands. Some back roads can offer a break from the melange of aggressive drivers but unless you opt for massive detours you will be forced onto the main thoroughfares eventually. Almost daily in Australia somebody has stopped to shout abuse or come close to running me off the road. It’s a mighty shame since Australia has plenty to offer touring cyclists.

Fact: Bikes are great, so why do so many bike lanes in Australia routinely end abruptly leaving cyclists without recourse? It’s as if the town planner was sketching out the cycling infrastructure and at that exact moment had a colossal brain haemorrhage. One driver on the outskirts of Newcastle got a barrage at their window when they were forced to stop at a red light ahead of me, and I don’t regret a word or gesture. I know what you’re thinking – why waste your energy? Don’t let it rile you. That was my mantra too, for about three years. Try being the little guy for that long and not become an enraged and militant biker. Aggressive drivers in Australia, persistent hawkers in Egypt, drunk policemen looking for bribes in Mexico, religious zealots in the US – experiences with these people are exasperating not just in themselves but because they remind me of one irritating universal truth – that there are twats everywhere.

The free tourist information maps in Australia are spangled with the symbols of important places, ones you might need to reach in a hurry – a hospital, a campsite, a petrol station, a liquor shop. The last one is necessary because some Australians are of the mindset that running the kids to school is more fun if you add vodka. So sick of the baleful minority of Aussie road-wankers we delved back into the bush, but first skirting Harrington, a weird little town who’s signpost proudly declared that it had once been the recipient of the award of ‘Tidiest Town in Australia’ which seemed to me the naffest of all awards to win. Tidy means soulless, I want rumpled quirkiness where character trumps order. Then other villages where chirpy locals taught us some local lingo – I can now tell someone they stink in Australian (“You’re a bit woofy under the Warricks”) or that they’re ugly (“you’ve got a face like a dropped pie”) which I am particularly fond of – visually it’s a great metaphor and one that speaks of Australia’s love of pastry based snacks to boot.

Keen for a little more adventure we veered off onto a gravel road that wound towards the rugged beaches and cliffs of Indian Head. My assurances to Claire that we were nearly there probably started sounding hollow well before my 13th attempt, and by the time we arrived the sun was about to elope but we were still determined to claim our reward of a swim in the aquamarine ripples of a swimming hole I’d seen in a photo in some tourist information centre. After what felt like an Iron Man like feat and with the last of the sun’s rays long since vanquished by night, we did an about turn and settled for a cold shower at the campsite. Now though when things don’t go to plan, as they often don’t, there’s someone to laugh about it with.

Australia’s wildlife is still one of the highlights of travel here and the forests in this region were home to three and four foot long Lace Monitor lizards which meandered through the campsite and under toilet doors, scattered startled tourists. I’m in a near constant hunt for snakes and big spiders, when I find one I can feel Claire shooting me daggers because she’s predicted my coming and inevitable hunt for a stick so I can poke the thing. ‘Why?!’ she demands. I shrug. How to tell her I’m hoping for some kind of attack on the poking device or other show of ferocity?

Our first koala in a roadside tree

Golden Orb Weaver
Another gravel road led to the beaches around Crescent Head, and the home of Bob, a local man who reeked of booze and not just in the olfactory sense. ‘I’ve cycled all around Australia you know’ said Bob, stroking his pseudo-pregnant paunch, quietly reminiscing. ‘Oh yeah, how was it?’ I enquired cautiously trying to imagine Bob not only on a bike but also younger, slimmer, less alcoholic and let’s face it, less Bob. ‘Dunno. Gave up after three days!’ he quipped. We pedalled to the beach and our bikes were soon lost in a whirlpool of ageing surfers who peered and pointed and muttered to each other and then unleashed an interrogation, Bob amongst them, chipping in with tangential lines of enquiry ‘Nice rims. Hey, did I tell you about the time I got a tick?’

Civilisation returned, and the small towns had shops whose signs boasted ‘Australian owned’. Well thank God. There’s nothing worse than being served by one of those revolting foreigners, they’re the ones who don’t have faded AC/DC singlets, mullets, missing teeth, the stink of stale Victorian Bitter and names like Bazza. The towns were joined by serene country roads and when we were enjoying a tailwind, sunny skies and no traffic I mused aloud ‘This is great Claire. Cycling doesn’t get much easier than this’. And then my back wheel collapsed.

After a local shop rebuilt it we continued to Brisbane where we stayed with Dion and Pune, two mates I stayed with back in Buenos Aires. It turned out the Ashes were just beginning (that’s an Anglo-Aussie cricket match and a century old rivalry to my American readers). I gave a few radio interviews outside the Gabba stadium admitting I didn’t know the match was in fact on at all until two days ago and taking some gentle abuse from Aussie sports commentators who liked to call me a freeloader, though one of the stations gave us free tickets to the first day of the test, before England got annihilated. The next night we spent in the company of musicians after Claire scored free tickets to a salubrious gig on the southbank which she writes about here.

We pedalled north through an ever more sizzling Queensland, a touch inland now, away from the busy coastal highway. After stopping outside a small grocery store I began to feel quickly unwell. Claire looked concerned as I rolled about moaning and complaining of nausea. She tried to get to the bottom of it. With a doctorate in psychology there was something of the therapist in her steady, careful patter.

‘Stephen, tell me what’s the matter?’
‘Dunno. Oh it hurts!’
I moaned, initiating a stagy clutch of my belly
‘Stephen, did you eat something?’
‘UUUUMMHP, yeah!’
‘Tell me what you ate’
‘A banana!’
‘Just a banana?’
‘No. A banana, and last night’s extra hot Tikka Masala’
‘All of it?’
‘Pretty much. AHHHHH, my stomach!’
‘Stephen, tell me what else?’
‘A litre of Molten Caramel flavoured MAX milk’
‘I see.’

‘Claire make it stop!’

‘Food panic’ – it’s the art of consuming an ill-advised combination of food in less time than it took to purchase it.

Cutting a route north through Queensland’s forests where tangled silhouettes of branches dappled the stony tracks, where the all-pervasive birdsong rang out, where we grew accustomed to the rustle of foliage as unseen creatures rushed from the road. Picking our way through villages we swam in creeks and camped in lay-bys sometimes alongside twenty something Europeans in camper vans here for the financial rewards of fruit picking. Over the last few days we’ve been treated to all manner of luxuries from local heroes: Joanne, Mark, John, Jan and Anna amongst them.

Our first foray together through Australia has been lots of things – eventful, waggish, tough too. We’re adjusting, physically for Claire, mentally for both of us, as we learn to cope with the fast oscillations of a life travelling together. In some respects things have been stacked against us – I mentioned spider bites, collapsing wheels, storms and bad drivers but there were a host of other tests too – an infected leg, a common cold (Claire), a severe case of man-flu (Steve), sore knees, a cut foot, a sore arse, joyriders and heat. No doubt there will be more to come as we pedal north into an ever more humid Queensland and beyond, but as I found out four years ago – the hardest part of any challenge is starting it in the first place, and I hope that’s true for Claire too.

Thank yous – Dylan (the hero who runs the sensational bicycle touring company Ride and Seek), Peter O’Driscoll and family, Dermot and family, Tommy Moore, Joanne, John, Steve and Liv, Dion, Pune and the gang, Kearon the camera dude, Jan and Anna, Lyndsey, Mel and Eddie, The Royal Geographical Society of Queensland, Mark, ABC and 4BC Radio stations, Saba, Ben and Joel, Neil Scott, Henry and Jamie, and a bunch of others – you know who you are. Next stop – Cairns for Christmas.

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.

Demise of the Shadow Cyclist

There are times when it strikes me that I’ve been cycling for a very long time. In Dawson City the revelation came just after I tried, unsuccessfully, to change gear with the grip-shift. I came to an abrupt halt in the baked goods aisle, looked down at my closed hand, which had subconsciously tensed around the handle of the supermarket trolley, and thought – maybe I should have some time off. Thankfully though I did not extend my arm to indicate whilst rounding the corner into the adjacent aisle, nor did I not lock the trolley to a lamppost in the parking lot.

Dawson City has a sinister seasonal split personality, like every other town at these latitudes. In the winter hardy locals and animals hibernate as the temperature drops to minus forty. In the summer it effervesces and teems with life and shudders under the shuffling feet of tourists, who arrive into town like a migration of wildebeest on the prairie. They get shuttled over the Canadian border from docked cruise ships or else have made their own meandering way here on motorbikes or in RVs. They come to catch a glimpse of this infamous wild-west town, clinging to it’s heritage, where houses are made of wood, the sidewalk is a boardwalk and there’s a nightly can-can show. Since the Klondike Goldrush more than a century ago a tide of misfits are drawn here too, girls with shaved heads and nose rings, burly, hard drinking men. There’s even a pub where there continues an old tradition of serving drinks which contain real pickled human toes donated in people’s wills. As you chug the crowd chants ‘You can drink it fast, you can drink it slow, but the lips have gotta touch the toe.’ And I think that says everything you need to know about Dawson.

It was here I met a Swizz couple on bicycles, Aurelie and Layko, who had been riding north from Colombia. They had spent the past few weeks picking morel mushrooms in the forest and had earned 6000 dollars in three weeks, so they bought the beers at the local can-can show where it was agreed – we would all ride together over the Top of The World Highway into Alaska. A boat ferried me across the Yukon river where they were waiting for me on the other side, and we set off on a nineteen kilometre climb up into the tundra. On the way up we passed a couple of Canadians dozing under a tree with so much gear they could have been refugees evicted from their homeland. On closer scrutiny the contents of their tumid panniers and laden trailer became clear – they were carrying enough tools to repair an aircraft carrier, a tent that could have comfortably housed a mormon family, a sitar, a mandolin and a didgeridoo.
‘I don’t get it!’ bemoaned the guy ‘it’s taking us ages!’.
I almost pointed out his problem. ‘Well maybe if you’d left the orchestra behind…’

Eventually the road crept up over the ridges and snaked across the tundra, a rash of spruce filled valleys, concealing remote streams. In the distance the mountains were blue-tinged and bleary, somewhere a wild fire had taken hold in the boreal forest, the smoke mushroomed skyward and looked like the aftermath of a nuclear bomb. Grazing caribou, a reminder of how far north we had come, scarpered as we cycled close by, their white tails bobbing up and down. Grizzly bears hunt the Caribou, so each evening we scanned the tundra and hauled food away from our tents.

The Top of the World Highway

I clicked with the Swizz straight away and the days towards Alaska overflowed with jokes and banter. We cycled at the same pace, although they both lived on a bean-heavy diet and were the most flatulent people I have ever met, so riding behind either of them was to invite a face-full of gas whilst evenings were supplemented by the heavy fug and music of their farts.

We approached the Alaskan border post with trepidation – none of us had a US VISA, I was banking on the guard giving me another 90 day VISA waver, even though I knew this was technically against the rules. The Swizz tactic involved responding to every question the border guard asked with a broad, inane smile and the same bright announcement.

You realise you need a VISA?
‘but vee are from Svitzerland!’
Yes I know, but you’ve stayed in the lower 48 for almost three months, is that right?
‘but vee are from Svitzerland!’
OK, fine, I got that. Tell me where you’re heading?
‘but vee are from Svitzerland!’

It worked a treat. Eventually the jaded guard stamped their passport, and mine to boot.

Chicken, a small town just across the border, allegedly got it’s name because some official couldn’t spell it’s actual name – ptarmigan, which is a variety of local bird, and so he just wrote Chicken. I’m not so sure. I think some crafty, longsighted entrepreneur saw the potential of the name change and now Chicken, which really has no right to anyone’s attention, has a steady stream of tourists who pose by the town’s signpost and buy bumper stickers and rubber chickens from the town’s souvenir shop. Every year the bustling metropolis of chicken, population 30, holds a music festival: Chickenstock.

Outside the pub in Chicken were dawdling men whose faces seemed to be hanging from their prodigious moustaches rather than being supported by their necks. They pierced cans of beer with knives and downed the contents in seconds. The road signs around here were peppered with bullet marks. There is an adjective to describe all this, and it’s ‘Alaskan’.

The road to Tok cut through a crepuscular light as smoke encroached from the nearby Moon Lake wild fire which had been sparked into action back in June after a lightning strike. There was an orange lip in the otherwise leaden sky and the air reeked – not of burnt wood, but of burning tundra. We got through just in time, two days later they closed the road. Wild fires are of course part of the natural cycle here and the fire fighting heroes of Alaska, the pilots who drop water and fire retardant and the hardcore Smoke Jumpers who parachute in front of fires with chainsaws to cut away the bush, only get called into action when the fire threatens people’s homes or areas of conservation. Otherwise Alaska is left to burn, and it burns a lot. 3000 square miles go up in flames every year, it often burns in a mosaic because of the underlying permafrost so great fingers of boreal forest are left unscorched, unless the wind changes and the fire can burn backwards, firing burning debris into the air which lands in some remote part of the forest and another fire takes hold.

The sun was blazing for my first few days in Alaska and I had to remind myself that winter here is a very different beast, the notion haunted me. I thought about the minus forty of a normal winter day, that the sun rises for only a couple of hours, that snow stays on the ground here for eight months of the year, and that below my wheels dig just a foot or so and the ground is frozen and will not defrost any time soon.

‘There is a kind of biotic riot in the summer outburst of colour, scent and sound… but always the season’s opposite haunts you: What about the winter? What must that be like?’ (David Roberts, Earth and the Great Weather, pub 1971).

Alaska was famously bought from Russia in 1869 at less than two cents an acre. A bargain if you like bog. Permafrost isn’t all that permeable so there are countless mosi-ridden pools brimming with decomposing vegetation, terrain known in these parts as the Muskeg. We cycled too across the flood plains of once epic rivers and I could only imagine the torrent flowing through them come spring. Now, in late summer, there was just a network of cement coloured streams trickling through. The Alaska range poked into view just briefly, ground squirrels scampered across the road and occasionally a moose loped onto the tarmac too forcing some emergency braking from our trio. We made it to Fairbanks where we spent the night in a campsite which was the type that featured, for free, a parade of wacked-out, bedraggled meth heads stumbling past our tents and making slurred, vague and mournful demands for alcohol and tobacco. Ahh, it was good to back in the good old US of A. Canada just doesn’t cut it in terms of desperate drug addicts.

In Fairbanks Ben, a great geezer, took me out for a film and food and then Duncan and his family put me up. Duncan had hosted several cyclists this year and had stories galore about my final stretch, the 750 km of road between Fairbanks and the Arctic Ocean, known as the Dalton highway, or more colloquially as The Haul Road. The Dalton is a supply route for the trans-Alaskan oil pipeline and oil fields of the north slope. The 800 mile pipeline runs adjacent to the road, almost always in view, and was constructed in the 70s, at the time it was the largest privately funded construction project in the world. This road north was only open to the public in 1994. The au caurant and urbane of my readership might know it from series 3 and 4 of the reality TV show ‘Ice Road Truckers’ where the tagline for the season is “In the Dark Heart of Alaska, there’s a road where hell has frozen over”.

If readiness can be measured by the quantity of peanut M&Ms in a pannier, my God I was ready. I was 2.2 kg ready. There were no grocery stores until my last stop, Deadhorse in Prudhoe Bay, so the Haul Road was an apt monikor as I would be lugging eight days of food and my bike was as heavy as it’s ever been. On my second night out of Fairbanks I set up camp by the road only to discover I had lost my spoon, my only bit of cutlery. I’m experienced though, I thought. I’m adaptable. I’ve cycled from Argentina, I’ll improvise. After a spanner, a piece of wood and the lid of a water bottle I was left thinking two things – spoons are amazingly underrated contraptions, and sweet Jesus, I’m hungry.

Now I’m not entirely sure ‘trough’ is actually a verb but when I say I ‘troughed’ my plate of steaming pasta and tomato sauce, I’m sure you get my drift. And as my jaw grinded away, lips sucking up tentacles of spaghetti, sauce oozing down my hairy chin whilst I emitted a sound analogous to a walrus having an orgasm, memories danced through my mind of the journey north from Argentina, the literal one and the personal one too. And with my beard steeped in tomato juice and an indiscernible chunk of vegetable lodged in my right nostril, I thought ‘Wow. Look at how far I’ve come’.

Day three on the Haul Road began with the sound of rain drilling onto my tent and the words of Paul and Duncan echoing through my mind. ‘It’s not so bad‘ they told me ‘unless it rains‘. The unpaved parts of the road are coated with calcium carbonate for the benefit of the truckers but the bane of cyclists. When it rains the surface transforms into a brown goo, the consistency of toothpaste, which sticks to everything. That day was a mud bath as the road continued to get churned up by the downpour. I camped by a river and lugged my bike down to the bank, submerged it and scrubbed her clean, the next day was dry and I grew optimistic that the worst was over, the worst of course, was still to come.

Some drivers think they can scold cyclists as an adult scolds a child. In Fairbanks someone yelled ‘Hey buddy, get off the road, thems for cars’. It was kind of the occupant to share their opinion, and to take time out of their busy schedule of shooting road signs, scratching their balls and incest. Mostly though I get waves and a thumbs up but occasionally when a motorist has to slow down because there’s not enough room to pass and a car is coming the other direction, they get touchy. I won’t ride in the gutter and it’s better that I test their patience than they test my mortality.

‘Hey!‘ yelled the RV driver who had to slow down on the Dalton ‘You should wear something luminous, I could hardly see ya!’ What he meant of course was ‘goddam you for making me slow down!‘. I’m not sure though what was more stupefying about his complaint – the fact that I have a luminous yellow dry bag on the back of my bike, the fact that there were three more hours until sunset or the fact that he was wearing the most enormous eighties-style jet black sunglasses I have ever seen. So I gently reminded him that if he took them off, maybe he wouldn’t get locked up for manslaughter.

I arrived finally to the Arctic Circle to get my obligatory shot by the signpost. The Arctic Circle is the southernmost latitude in the Northern Hemisphere at which the sun can remain continuously above or below the horizon for 24 hours. A tribe of tourists shambled past me with a tour guide who was pointing out notable arctic vegetation whilst giving a nature documentary-like narration, but the camera lenses of the crowd became focused on me instead of the flora. I half expected the tour guide to continue…

‘And here we have a cycle tourist. It’s a solitary male, you can tell from the brown crust of peanut butter in the facial hair. They migrate to Alaska in the summer and are scavengers by nature and will eat vast quantities of anything available, often picking up morcels from the ground, sniffing them, shrugging and devouring the find. This one’s been on the road a while, notice the veneer of filth, the wild stare and the pungent odor. We like to keep the cycle tourers wild, so try not to feed them. Look, there, he’s scratching his arse, we believe that’s a courtship ritual.’

A Shamrock Orb Weever
Parts of the highway have amusing names conceived of by the truckers that ply the road all year – Oil Spill Hill, The Beaver Slide, The Rollercoaster and my favourite – Oh Shit Corner, a place where every trucker has had an Oh Shit moment, one told me. ‘Your brakes go out here in the winter and you’re at the helm of an 18 wheel toboggan’. I rode next through the truck stop of Coldfoot (singular, the other presumably amputated) where I found myself surrounded by burly, bearded men crowding their plates with fried food. I have never been in the presence of so much denim and heart disease in my life.

I rode past Prospect Creek, site of the lowest ever recorded temperature in the US – minus 80°F. Then through forests of spindly black spruce which can grow over the permafrost until I arrived at the Farthest North Spruce Tree (advertised by way of a signpost and which some joker had once tried to cut down), after which there is only bare tundra, a place too cold for trees to survive in the winter. Until the last tree the road had been bounding through the hills but now came the major climb over the Atigun Pass, crossing the Brooks Range and The Continental Divide.

The Atigun was shrouded in cloud and visibility fell to thirty metres. The headwind was fierce and slowed me to a crawl. By the evening I topped the pass, which had just a light dusting of snow, whilst the slopes of the mountains were yellowing with the coming of autumn. I dropped then, only a little, to a river where I spotted a bicycle and a tent. Leonard was a Canadian biker heading south, I camped next to him. The following day he called over to me as I shivered in my four season sleeping bag – ‘Hey Steve, there’s three inches of snow, and it’s still coming down!’. I unzipped the tent expecting a wind up, ready to scoff, only to find we had been engulfed – it was a white-out.

Climbing the Atigun Pass

I admit it – I had wanted some snow, because I wanted an archetypal Alaskan ending and a suitable crescendo to my journey through the Americas. Be careful what you wish for. I dropped roughly the annual produce of a large Colombian coffee plantation into my mug in an effort to warm me up and motivate me to ride in the snow. Leonard more sensibly decided to hitch hike because he still had to clear the pass.

I set out into the bleak white murk. Snow fell all day and the white mountains, peppered with snow yesterday became completely coated and soon blended perfectly into the cloud. My gloves were hole-ridden and wet, my hands took the brunt of the chill. I stopped for food for just 15 minutes – it was a big mistake. For the next hour my blue hands ached with the cold. I put a jar of peanuts on my handlebars so I didn’t have to stop to eat. Soon the mud that had collected on my bike froze solid and my brake levers, gripshift and brake pads were immovable. It didn’t matter much anyway – my hands were too cold to operate the brakes or gears even if they did function.

I camped early to get out of the blizzard by a road workers camp. The next day the sun was blazing and the snow had begun to melt, my bike though was in bad shape. The mud had frozen to completely lock the chain, the brakes and even the wheels. I carried it over to the road workers who had a water jet to get the mud off.

The next night I camped with a cheery bunch of bow hunters who fed me the caribou they’d killed on the north slope. They told me of six grizzly bears just two miles from here, munching on blueberries down by the river. When I left the next day in the fog I scanned the gloom for bear-shaped shadows but saw none. Then I remembered there were ten bow hunters out here scouring the tundra for caribou, with my bike I was about the right size and I hoped they didn’t mistake me for one of the herd. I wondered if I would end up on the ground, impaled, looking up at a circle of gruff, appraising faces whilst someone muttered ‘well, bit of gristle, but he’ll have to do’. Perhaps my head would end up above someone’s fireplace.

As I cycled over the north slope which was a vast, even expanse of tussocks and pools, up sprang my old compadre – the Shadow Cyclist. 21 months ago in the southern Argentinean city of Ushuaia I watched the same shadow cyclist, sinewy and sinister, stretched out to my right into the wind-blasted Patagonian scrub. As I rode north through the Americas the setting sun to my left would bring to life the Shadow Cyclist and he traveled with me. As my shadow glided over the tundra my mind was a whirlpool of memories, full of the weird places I’d been and the people that coloured them. In the distance the dark blots of roaming muskox could be seen on the plains, and up above snow geese honked as they flew in their malformed Vs and Ws, heading to warmer climes, as I continued to the top of the continent.

The Trans-Alaskan Pipeline
Bow Hunters
A Muskox making sure I didn’t come too close
Finally there it was – the town of Deadhorse – my last stop. I arrived with my eyes and face red from the wind, my hair knotted, bike mud-encrusted with a rattling chain and tinkling broken spoke and bare front tyre. I have never been as hairy or as dirty in my adult life. The oil companies, principally BP, don’t let anyone ride the three miles to the Arctic Ocean, which seemed a little unfair considering I’d cycled 22,000 miles from the Southern Ocean, but I guess they are too busy taking baths of money and dowsing sea birds in crude oil than caring about meager cyclists. Still though I admit feeling a tingle of pride that comes at each pivotal moment and each major milestone I get to. But temper that ego, I told myself, because two weeks before I cycled the Haul Road a couple of bikers were here too. They are both almost completely blind and had ridden a tandem 20,000 miles from Argentina. Now that’s impressive. My favourite part of their story is that they they had to paint their bike white, because every so often they would lose it.

Deadhorse – it’s assumed the eponymous horse died of the cold, I wouldn’t rule out boredom. Maybe it was a suicide, the horse might have flung itself headfirst into the Arctic Ocean after a week or so here. Deadhorse is a modern day, real life Mordor, and it didn’t feel like a place to celebrate. It’s the kind of place that might hold the International Agarophobia Society’s annual conference. Or it’s a place to send recurrent sex offenders. Its full of oil workers, metal freight containers, cranes, warehouses and machinery and nothing else. If there was a cemetery or a penal colony here it would actually add character. Of course none of that stops one of the town’s two hotels selling ‘I’ve been to Deadhorse’ T-Shirts. The best thing you can say about Deadhorse is that it is what it is, and what it is is a place for industry, not for travelers. There was no bar, Deadhorse is dry, which is just as well because if there was the residents would no doubt drink themselves nightly into a state of prelapsarian bliss in an attempt to forget about where they were. It was, in short, a massive anti-climax. At the end of Africa was the hubbub of Capetown and the glorious towering symbol of Table Mountain, here there was gloom, mud, bogs and ambient despair. There were no dancing girls to welcome me in and put a wreath around my neck, instead an oil worker came over to me –
‘You cycled up from Argentina then?’
‘Why you wanna do that?’

For two days I sat in the Aurora Hotel where everyone assumed I was a guest or an oil worker and plundered the buffet without ever opening my wallet. I stole so much food, presumably paid for in some round about way by the oil companies – so I felt no guilt, that I could hardly move. It was Grand Theft Edible. That night I sneaked inside a deserted warehouse that was sinking into the permafrost. In the back room was some floor space not covered by the glass and assorted junk over the rest of it, and I made it my home.

Courtesy of British Petroleum, unwitting sponsors of Cycling The Six
I hitch hiked back to Fairbanks after two days in Deadhorse with Ed, every inch the stereotype – a chain-smoking trucker with a paunch and handlebar moustache. He saw me shivering in the snow and didn’t think twice about giving me a ride. As the last week of my life flashed by in hours as Ed drove back the way I had cycled, we came across another truck which had broken down so we stopped to help and Ed performed his second rescue. ‘That’s what we do out here on the Haul Road’ said Ed. ‘We help each other out.’ Alaskans have proved every bit as generous and hospitable as I’d heard they are, though having said that I will never fully understand a group of people who collectively, and one must assume wittingly and without duress, voted Sarah Palin into office.

So what’s next – well my plans have been in flux of late but suffice to say things are looking peachy and there will be some important and very exciting updates coming soon. I will spend September here in Alaska where I will be speaking at the Alaska World Affair’s Council in Anchorage (20th Sep) and in Juneau (18th). In October I will fly to Australia, continent number five – a full plan coming soon. Expect a long overdue equipment review on this blog and some statistics about my ride through the Americas.

Thank yous – Huge thank yous to Duncan and family, Ben, Ed the trucker, the hunters from Minnesota, everyone who fed me on the Top of the World Highway, and anyone I’ve left out.

I’m commencing a 60 day crowd-funding campaign in September which will enable me to finish this journey – I will post on this blog in the coming weeks – please have a read, and if I can convince you to help me realise my dream of riding the length of six continents then make a donation, otherwise this blog will be put to bed, and my Mum for one will be disappointed. You can’t donate yet but I’ll post the link on here when you can. This video doesn’t really explain why you should, but it’s quite amusing…


Yukon and on and on

They call it ‘The Highway of Tears’. Since the seventies more than twenty women have vanished off the main road that sweeps east-west across British Columbia connecting the port of Prince Rupert and the town of Prince George, most of them hitch-hikers, most Native Americans. Each body unearthed from the forest adds to the tally of an uncaught killer. The eyes of these women gazed at me from the roadside missing posters as I cycled by – sentient, sparkling eyes, in concert with playful smiles, maybe because a loved one had called their name and snapped a surprise photo. The mood of that instant, captured in a time when they weren’t missed or mourned, was at odds with the bleak details of their disappearance or murder in the print that followed.

For three days the weather was congruent with the road’s repute and the sadness that seeped from each poster and missing smile. A tense, metallic sky drooped low over the forest, the rain-laden clouds almost enveloping the spiny tops of the spruce trees which sprawled out over the hills like an ancient army ready for battle, their ranks broken only by the odd raggedy lake. I edged west until the coastal range jerked up out of the western horizon, as fast as a pop-up in a children’s book. Buried in a crease of glinting rock was the Hudson Bay Glacier – the first river of ice on my route since I was embroiled in a battle for air in the lofty peaks of the Cordillera Blanca range in Peru. During the summer in these open, almost unpeopled lands in the northern reaches of North America I can read my book at midnight by the afterglow of a sun that dinks beneath the horizon only briefly before it’s up again too early, night here is just a harried caller.

I stayed in a cabin one night on Highway 16, a refuge set up by a local man for tired bikers to use for the night. There was a guestbook where cyclists scribbled ‘keep the rubber side down!’ and wished each other tail winds, and there were discarded items lying about for others to take or trade, items whose weight was not deemed worth their usefulness. Books, a mirror, a ladle and some condoms, presumably someone was feeling a little pessimistic about their chances with the Alaskan totty, if that’s not an oxymoron.

The roads and my options become fewer up here – I have only one real choice to make for the next 3000 km before the Dalton Highway ferries me into the arctic circle and eventually to the Arctic Ocean where my northbound romp I began one year and eight months ago from Argentina comes to a head. From highway 16 I hung a right onto the Cassiar Highway and Canada got wilder. The road pierces a huge tract of sparsely populated back country, ending after 723 km at the Alaska Highway in the Yukon. I rode past vivid sprays of intermingled pink and saffron wild flowers riven by crooked corridors of flat foliage – trails made by foraging black bears. On my first day on the Cassiar I spotted four bears, all made a dash from the road once I got close and camera-ready. A day later a female with four cubs trundled out onto the tarmac, so I kept my distance in case Mum’s instinct to protect her young included mauling any bikers in sight. Two weeks before an American cyclist had been attacked by a wolf near here as he cycled. He dived inside an RV just in time, the wolf tore apart his panniers. A bear attack though, I mused, might have a silver lining. I don’t really want the fear of death, but to survive with a nice claw mark to show for it and no PTSD would provide a good yarn and probably the legacy of never having to buy my own beer again. Maybe that’s my fate. To hunch in a corner of some dingy local haunt, full of old soaks, a place where I’m local too and no longer a stranger, when I’m gnarled and grizzly and stout-soaked and rambling. ‘That’ll be ole Fabesy’ the barman might say. ‘Beat a Grizzley to death once. Buy ‘im a beer ‘n he’ll tell y’all bout it.’

Mountains, snow-spotted and rusty-verged and scarred with the eroded channels of invisible streams, towered over deep interlocking valleys. The Cassiar became elevated in sections and land tumbled down either side into a parade of pine trees, as rigid as nails, crowded together, unshakable in the soggy and loam-scented breeze. In the evenings I camped by lakes where I could wallow through the soupy, reed-scattered fringes and wash off the day. The sanguine light of the low sun glanced off the water and thousands of glinting motes, the wings of insects, flickered just above the surface, and for hours I heard the plops of fish that flipped out to gobble them up.

There were places on my map with names, like junctions, dry creek beds and long abandoned towns, and sometimes it was two hundred kilometres or more before I landed on somewhere useful with water and food. Sometimes it was a fiercely priced lodge, sometimes just a store with parochial, miserly proprietors who reminded me not to bring my own food inside and in one case refused to fill up my water bottle, because, and I quote verbatim ‘I don’t know where it’s been’. I flashed him a wan smile, thinking about where I’d like it to go. Canadian hospitality has flourished in every other respect though – I’ve been donated money, beds, campsites, peanut butter, salmon, a dry bag, a high five, and oceans of good vibes. So thank you Canada.

When I wasn’t rough camping or pitching in some ominously labeled lay-by called something like ‘The Rabid Grizzly Rest Stop’ (that place really does exist), or on the fringes of a small Native community, I rested up in campsites, even though BCs pricing policy is about as logical and fair as the British National Party’s manifesto. In BC government campsites you are charged per ‘camping party’ – which can be an RV the size of a long distance passenger coach, three tents and eight people, or alternatively: one man and a bicycle. And you can’t team up with other soloists – ‘you arrive alone, you pay alone’ scorned a mardy attendant.

Scarpering bears and porcupines and chats with bikers broke up my days on the Cassiar, the cyclists were all heading south, autumn falls in August up here and I’m traveling late in the season. Motorcyclists waved and RVs rallied by. Evidently Earnest Shakelton brought a smoothy maker, a foot spa and a microwave to Antarctica. Or at least that’s what the RV manufacturers would have you believe with names like The Adventurer and The Expedition. And there was the slightly more tepid Excursion, which invites the question – why do you need a 33 foot mega-vehicle with leather couches and a Sony home cinema system if it’s only an excursion? Some have run with the tested, zesty names of predators – The Puma, The Cougar, The White Hawk, and then breaking tradition there’s the less ostentatious Mallard. Come on, The Mallard? Who’s going to buy one of those? Except the obvious market: roving ornithologists. At a guess the Mallard stays in the garage, the Cougar gets the driveway. I liked the occupants of the Mallard though, they honked and waved and cheered me on, which made me think that either ornithologists are all very chirpy, or very high. Perhaps there’s a promotion on at the Mallard dealership – each vehicle comes with a year’s supply of Ecstasy.

There’s the King Kamper too, RV manufacturers have been studying the greats of hiphop, breaks and dubstep production by putting a K where a C should be to add some edge. And of course the road hogging assholes that drive THE INTRUDER. I can imagine the American Infomercial now: a brash and angry man shouts abrasively into camera…

‘You wanna crush some nature? You wanna kick the shit out of the wilderness? You need THE INTRUDER! Comes with three moose-seeking missiles, a license to hunt Native Americans and a flame thrower so you can start your own wildfires. Don’t visit nature, INTRUDE on it! Or for just 300,000 bucks more upgrade to THE DEATH STAR and get a year’s supply of Napalm absolutely free!’

There can’t be a more convincing argument against the existence of a benevolent God and Creator than the mosquito, and the Yukon is their domain. For the last two days on the Cassiar Highway the insects were about as prevalent as my fleeting urge to throw myself under a truck because of them. Cycling became more relaxing than not because my break time involved a myriad of buzzing Beelzebubs feeding on my blood before making sweet insect love in my nostrils and having a party on my face. At night thousands swarmed around my tent and between the inner and the fly. Sometimes I’d stop to chat with another biker heading south, we’d both make harried conversation whilst slapping away feeding mosquitoes, vigorously scratching old bites, twirling around wildly to break the cumulus cloud of flying critters and cursing loudly. The best simile I can offer is a pair of people with severe Tourettes attempting to Morris dance after a weeklong crack cocaine binge. It might sound unlikely, but I’m fairly sure that’s a Saturday night in some parts of Manchester.

Mosquitoes in my effing home
The Yukon is a colossal territory north of BC, a hinterland of bear-filled forest and scattered lakes in the watershed of it’s namesake, the Yukon River. I rode northwest through the Yukon along the Alaska Highway, gone were the valleys and peaks, in their place just scores of dead spruce whose reflections stewed in the inky swamps they protruded from. Wild fires in the 80’s wiped out great swathes of forest here and the young trees planted in their place are resplendent green and already house high. More recent fires had left only blackened stumps, between them a scintillating rug of fireweed – a pioneer species that paints the tarry remnants of an old blaze a ferocious pink – was nature’s two fingers up at destruction. Some crown fires are so immense they can burn through the winter months too, only to be fully extinguished in the spring when firefighters dig up the smoldering earth.

I can’t shake the thought that there’s something innately vapid and cheesy about using travel as a road to self-discovery. For me it conjures the image of hapless nineteen year olds traveling to the banks of the Ganges to ‘find’ themselves. I didn’t embark on this journey by bike to that end, discovery was in my mind reserved for the outside world and not the internal one, but I’ve had the treacle-like drip of time on my bike to ponder, to analyse, to remember, to regret and to dream, so inevitably self-reflection happens whether I was expecting or willing it to or not. ‘Finding myself’ though might be overkill, I’d prefer to stay a little lost.

There have been no grand revelations though, no big questions done away with. And I was the barely yellow, ripe around the edges, years away from moldy, age of 29 when I left on my bike, so travel hasn’t ram-raided the shop front of my personality either. My priorities have shifted, though I won’t be adopting an orphan from Malawi.

So what have I learnt about myself exactly? Perhaps I’ll explain more if I ever write a book about all this. In those rookie days back in 2010, when I shivered inside an ice-encrusted sleeping bag and worried a bit about exposure, one thing that I did discover was how much I was capable of, and it was more than I thought. I’ve been pushed in countless ways and finding out how much solitude, how much exhaustion, how much fear and how much boredom I can deal with before my brain screams Enough! Go home! was good to know. When push came to shove I didn’t immediately pencil in a route on my map to the nearest airport. I coped, and sometimes more than that, I reveled in the test. This doesn’t of course mark me out as special or heroic, in fact it’s the opposite – it’s the most average response in the world. In many respects most of us have a deflated opinion of what we’re capable of. It’s why the clichéd dictum of ‘you can do anything you want to’ is so clichéd – because despite the superficial welcome it receives, despite how regularly it’s banded about, how many people really believe it?

Finally I arrived into Whitehorse, the capital of the Yukon and a stonking place in the Granola belt of Canada where friends Kirstin and Cameron gave me a bed, introduced me to the best TV show on earth (check out ‘Drunk Histories’) before we had a great knees up for Kirstin’s birthday which involved, though not from memory, rum. Five uninspiring days of riding after I left Whitehorse, brightened only by Greg Proop’s podcast on my IPOD, I got to the very trippy wild west town of Dawson City, created and made famous by the Klondike Gold Rush, where I have teamed up with two Swizz cyclists – together we will ride into Alaska via the rough and tough and high and allegedly stunning border crossing known as ‘The Top Of The World Highway’, which for touring cyclists is one of the most famous roads in the Americas. And I have decided no more shaving, a cultural homage to the men and women that live in Alaska. Wait up, do women live in Alaska?

Thank yous – Kirstin and Cameron – you are the bee’s knees. Jon and Jenna – Bobby Dazzlers, the pair of you. Brenda – mad props. The Goldrush Campsite, The Cycle Canada crew, Jon from Rainbow RV park, some other anonymous headz. Next month is my last blog post from this continent, there might be snow in them photos too.