Archive for November, 2006

No worries from Alice Springs Part Deux - Camels and Kindness

Tuesday, November 14th, 2006

Hey people,

Well this could be a tough email to write. For the first time since I started my travels I’m going to have to miss out writing about some of the kindness I’ve been shown since my last email due to the sheer quantity. Thailand is in danger of losing it’s number one spot on my “Top Ten Favourite Places to Cycle” list that I like to compile in my head during the endless hours I spend in the saddle. Strange to think that after the first few days it was rivaling Serbia for my least favourite place to cycle. That’s not to say that Australia isn’t a tough place to cycle. I’m not saying that it isn’t a country that unless you show it the correct amount of respect it’ll kill you with unnerving speed. It’s just that if you get it right, if you treat it with respect, the rewards are enormous.

I left Tennant’s Creek about two weeks ago. It’s 500 kms to Alice Springs and I decided to aim for a 4 day ride with a day off as a reward if I managed it. Constant days in excess of 100 kms are difficult in Oz because you’re really at the mercy of the environment. Get a head wind and a day where the temperatures are pushing 40C in the shade and you don’t get a lot of cycling time. With the terrain being flat, and the vegetation sparse, there isn’t a great deal to stop the wind so the winds roll across the open plains and can reduce you to a gibbering wreck. On my second day out of Tennant’s Creek I put in an 8 hour day and still didn’t make 100 kms. The headwind was so strong I was using gears I’d normally reserve for 1 in 5 gradients up the side of mountains. Psychologically I’d say headwinds are the most difficult to cope with of all the adverse cycling conditions. Mountains you get the sense of achievement and the views. Headwinds you get nothing.

Wycliffe Well

The first roadhouse stopped at after Tennant’s Creek was the famous Wycliffe Well which is labeled as the UFO capital of Australia. It also has the widest selection of beers in NT and I’m guessing there’s a connection. Call me cynical but there’s a roadhouse 10 miles up the road and no one has seen any UFOs there so I get the impression it’s a theme to get the punters in. The story goes that maybe the aliens are interested in the Devil’s Marbles which are to the north but I had a look at the Devil’s Marbles and yeah, they’re interesting, but I wasn’t sure my 2km diversion on a bike was worth it so I can’t see anyone coming light years to check them out.

Devil's Marbles

More Devil's Marbles

The next roadhouse was the infamous Barrow Creek. This is the nearest roadhouse to where Peter Falconio was murdered/abducted. I spent a few hours there waiting out the midday sun and people would cruise past taking pictures from the safety of their cars. I tried looking menacing to help the tourists out but while I’ve mastered dirty Mexican fruit picker, I haven’t got menacing down yet. Thousands of people all over the world will be having to explain to their family and friends why there’s a dirty Mexican fruit picker in their holiday snaps of the infamous Barrow Creek.

After 4 days of hard riding I approached Alice Springs from the north. I passed two landmarks just before I arrived got there. The first is a rest area located on the Tropic of Capricorn. I have a cheesy tourist photo of me with my left leg in the tropics and the right in the non-tropics. You can tell which leg is in the tropics as it’s sweating slightly more. I also crossed the highest point on the Stuart Highway between Darwin and Adelaide. Now I’ve crossed some highest points in my journey so far and the common denominator is that I’ve had to do a fair bit of hard climbing to get there. This one was unique in as much as I had no idea I’d even been climbing to get to it. I would have just as easily believed it was the lowest point. You could tell that even Aussies are a bit embarrassed about the whole thing as it doesn’t even mention the elevation.

Tropic of Capricorn

Highest Point

I rewarded myself with a day off in Alice Springs as out of the 4 days riding, 3 had been in excess of 140 kms so I figured I needed a rest. Something has changed in me though. I don’t feel as comfortable in the populated areas as I do out on the road or in the roadhouses. I stayed in a backpacker hostel and people just don’t look like they’re having fun to me. There’s a vibrancy of life in the roadhouses that I just don’t feel in the towns. Seems that when you stick people in the middle of nowhere they instinctively draw together and that’s when you get your great times. In the populated areas everyone seems to be trying to avoid each other. Like they’re trying to rediscover their personal space.

Who the F**k is Alice?

I left Alice Springs in the evening. On the way out I met a fellow long distance cyclist without a bike as his had been stolen a few nights before. I was pretty annoyed because the place where his bike had been taken from was the room where the hostel had told me to put my bike for safety. Luckily the guy was Japanese anyway and as mad as a hatter so didn’t seem vaguely bothered he’d lost all his things. He only looked annoyed when I reminded him he should be annoyed. The rest of the time he looked thrilled with life and seemed to think I was some kind of international cycling star and insisted on taking pictures and calling me crazy constantly. You start to worry when Japanese long distance cyclists call you crazy.

My target after Alice Springs was Ayer’s Rock. In essence Ayer’s Rock was the reason I’d gone straight on at Threeways and started a 2000 km detour by bicycle. I nailed it after Alice. Maybe the rock was calling me but I just felt like I wanted to get there. It’s 450 km from Alice to the Rock and I was aiming to do it in 3 days.

The first day I stopped off in Stuart’s Well which is a non-descript roadhouse except it has a camel farm. I put my bike against a fence and wandered into the roadhouse for a carton of milk. When I came back the camels had wandered over and for some reason thought my bike was edible and were chewing away at my panniers. My bike was now covered in camel slobber. This was the start of what was to develop into a bit of a camel theme for the rest of my trip.

Camel munching on my bike

Me at a camel farm

On my second night out of Alice I pulled up at a rest stop to make myself a cup of tea. There were two grey nomads settling in for the night. They introduced themselves as Billy and Stella and they couldn’t have been more aussie short of wearing cork hats and singing “Waltzing Matilda”. They were also two of the kindest people I’ve met. Billy asked me the last time I’d had a cup of tea and you could tell he loved playing the host and so I lied a bit and neglected to mention I’d just had one 60 kms up the road. By the time I’d left them I’d had three cups of tea, a slap up meal and they’d sent me packing with some magnesium and salt tablets to help with dehydration. After I left them I was cycling down the road when I startled a kangaroo. The kangaroo couldn’t go left because there was a fence and couldn’t go right because it was scared of me so I had this kangaroo racing next to me for a good kilometre or so before if realised I’d just sail by it it stood still.

I turned off the Stuart Highway for the last 250kms to Ayer’s Rock. I stopped off at Mount Ebeneezer roadhouse which inevitably has me singing “Ebeneezer Goode” every time I think about it. Another thing that’s started happening in Oz is people offering me places to stay once I hit their part of the country. I’ve got a place to stay in a fair few places down the East Coast which has all come about just from sitting in the roadhouses.

I was cycling from Mount Ebeneezer to Curtin Springs when I noticed what looked like a horse drawn cart up ahead of me. The cart was going pretty slow so I pedaled towards it. As I got closer I noticed there was a guy running alongside the cart holding onto whatever was pulling the cart. At this point I realised the cart was being pulled by two camels. At the same time I had this realisation, the camels noticed I was coming up behind them and not being used to bicycles they bolted for the horizon leaving their owner stranded in the middle of the road. I asked their owner what I should do and he suggested I chase the camels, get in front of them and then they’d stop running. So I head off up the road in pursuit of the runaway camels but the things had a pretty decent turn of speed and I couldn’t get near them. After a while I realised this was going to end with me chasing these camels all the way to Ayer’s Rock so I stopped and went back for the owner who was a good few miles behind by now and see if we could figure out what to do. Eventually a car comes by so we flag the car down, the owner gets in the car and chases after the camels, gets in front of them and then gets back in the cart. He then motions for me to go past while he’s got hold of the reins and of I speed up the road. I must have laughed for about 5 miles after I’d left them. I have some mint pictures of the moment I overtake the camels and you can just see them wanting to bolt again.

Klaus and his camels

I arrived at Ayer’s Rock Resort in the evening. On the way there you keep catching little glimpses of Ayer’s Rock but it’s never a proper view due to the surrounding hills. It’s like nature is keeping the rock hidden until you can truly appreciate it. While I was waiting for a call I got speaking to Patrick and Carol, a South African couple who invited me for a drink. After I set up camp I headed over to the camp bar for a beer. It turned out that Carol was from my old home town of Durban so we had plenty to talk about. They were on a bit of a world tour themselves but you could tell Patrick was excited by the prospect of doing some traveled by bicycle so the evening was spent with Patrick asking me questions and Carol getting worried that at some point in her life she was going to spend a very long time on a bicycle in some far away country. I always try and be as truthful as I can about the difficulties of long distance cycling and I hope I conveyed that. I don’t believe it is for everyone. If you’re the type of person who views traveling as something where everything is perfect because you’ve paid for it to be perfect then you’ll hate long distance cycle touring. If you accept that part of traveling is having having some pretty awful days but they make you appreciate the great days more, then I’d recommend long distance cycle touring.

Me, Carol and Paddy at the Olgas

I went to see both the Olgas and Ayer’s Rock. They are pretty amazing and while I preferred the Olgas it does all feel a bit contrived. I guess that’s to be expected though. Many people just get off the plane, go look at the rock, get back on the plane and that’s their experience of Central Australia. I’m not questioning other people’s method of travel and I appreciate that a lot of it is due to time constraints but it doesn’t look satisfying to me.

Bessie visits Ayer's Rock

Climb at Ayer's Rock

I left the resort about 4 days ago. I felt like taking it a bit easier on the way back. The first day out of Ayer’s Rock, I was cycled along all happy and merry when I turned around and noticed the sky was pitch black behind me and worse, I could see it was blowing up a sandstorm. I was between roadhouses so had no real way of finding decent shelter so pulled off at the nearest rest area. The rest areas usually have trees and a couple of concrete tables. The storm hit me and there was no way I could stay in the open as the sand was being driven at me at ferocious speeds and it felt like I was being sandblasted. I crawled under the table and tried to build a bit of shelter just so I could get some sleep. It worked to some degree but no matter what I did I’d get the odd gust of wind from a different direction that’d blow sand into my face. It was like trying to get some sleep with someone kicking sand in your face every 15 minutes. The most annoying thing was I’d just paid 3 dollars for my first shower in days and when I emerged from the table in the morning I was plastered with sand.

The next day in Curtin Springs I was sitting down talking to a load of elderly tourists from the UK. I was sitting next to the sweetest old lady who kept on asking me loads of questions mainly about my health and making sure I was eating properly and looking after myself. A few minutes later their tour giude came over to shepherd them all into the coach and as she was getting up she slipped a 10 dollar note into my hand. The way she did it was the way grandmothers have given their grandchildren money for all of eternity. All discrete and when I asked her what it was for she said it was to get myself something nice. Can of pop and a packet of crisps I’m guessing. Things like that only happen when you’re on a bike in the outback.

Sleeping under the desert sky

On the way back I also met the camel guy again. He does about 20 kms a day so hadn’t got very far since I’d last chased his camels down the road. He was holed up in a rest area, the camels were outback munching on the trees. He introduced himself a Klaus and he’d been traveling round Australia for 12 years with only the mode of transport changing. The first 8 years he’d traveled by bicycle with his dog. He’d built a little trailer for the dog as it could only walk for about 25 kms a day. Problem is the dog got clever and as time went on he wanted to spend more time on the trailer and less time walking. Klaus would have to chase the dog off the trailer but the dog got clever again and noticed that if it just wandered into the middle of the road, then Klaus would chase him back onto the trailer again to keep him away from the cars.

After 8 years he got sick of traveling by bike and built himself an amphibious bike. The idea being he’d travel by river where he could and then if the river dried up he could cycle to the next river with water. He managed this for 3 years before he decided he was a rubbish sailor and came up with the idea of the camels. Ignoring that they run off when approached by bicycles, it’s a pretty good way to travel round Oz. The only downside he says is that the tourists are always stopping and hassling him for photos and to pet the camels. The Oz govt should make the man a National Heritage site as I reckon a lot more people go home talking about the guy being pulled across Oz by camels than they do Ayer’s Rock.

While I was in the resort I met a lad called Damien who’s doing a big tour by motorbike. One of those times you meet someone and think yeah this is a bloke I could be mates with irrespective of the circumstances. His plans are to head north over to Malaysia and then across Asia to Europe. We kept on bumping into each other as I was heading back to Alice and he was taking detours on his bike so we spent a fair bit of time chatting in the roadhouses. I pointed out that he’s heard my cycling stories for the tourists so many times that he can tell them while I take a bit of time off. Damien is one of those blokes who’s always hatching plans and I made the mistake of saying I’d love to do South America by motorbike and now I’ve agreed to a 3 month journey sometime after I get back. I seems to have turned into a man who agrees to everything. My future list of things to do grows everyday and now includes climb Mt Kilimanjaro, cycle the Croatian coast and South America by motorbike. This doesn’t include the plans I’m keeping to myself.

I’m back in Alice Springs now and will hopefully catch up with Damien later as I haven’t had a night on the beer since south Thailand and I reckon I could do with one.

Was it worth the 2000 km detour to see Ayer’s Rock? Not really. Was it worth it for the people I’ve met and the experiences I’ve had? Definitely. I’d have done double that distance just for the great two weeks I’ve had.

Anyways best go and find a campsite for the night.

Lots of Love As Always,