Posts Tagged ‘Australia’

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.