Somewhere about 500 miles or so before Airlie Beach, I was riding along peacefully and I heard my name whispered. It was just the faintest whisper: "Wade...". I looked around, and couldn't see anything, so I continued on. After a while, I heard it again: "Wade... over here...". Again I couldn't find the source, so I continued about my business of pedaling. It took a while to figure out where the noise was coming from, but I finally located the source when it started getting more specific with phrases like "Wade... Over here.... Mountains... Outback...". Then it started taunting me with stuff like "Wade... Why are you riding there in flat easy tourist country, Pansy Boy?".
I'd been riding beside the Great Barrier Range for miles, and it turned out that they were in fact calling me with the lure of climbing mountains and cycling the famous Australian Outback. This range of mountains extends all the way down through Queensland, about 100 km from the coast and I'd been cycling beside them for weeks. When I started out in Brisbane, I'd originally just looked on the map and sort of halfway decided to head for Cairns. That was 2,000 km from Brisbane, so that seemed like a nice ride. However, I'd read about an interesting town called Mount Isa, which was 1,000 km (625 miles) inland in the Outback. Townsville was the place I had to decide whether to listen to the mountains and the Outback, or just continue on to Cairns.
Now, I really liked the Queensland Coast, and I highly recommend it, but by then I'd seen 1,800 km (1,100 miles) of it, and I'd had about enough. I had pretty much decided to go inland by the time I left Airlie Beach, and Townsville was the last stop on the coast, and the place to make the jump.
Townsville isn't in the Outback, but it's the place where I made the direction change from the Queensland Coast into the Outback. It's a town that most of the people along the coast referred to as "Huge". By Queensland Coast standards it is, but by any other standards it's a pretty small town (about 200,000 people).
Townsville was a very interesting stop for me because of some people I met there. When I first rode into town, I was cruising along looking for a hotel using my usual technique (trusting to blind random luck), and a guy ahead of me flagged me down and said something like "Choice bent, mate... Whoa, Is that full suspension? Do you get any shock compression on big hills?". These question tell me immediately that I'm talking to someone that knows a thing or two about bicycles (full suspension bicycles are notorious for wasting pedaling energy in the rear shock, making the back squat down as you pedal hard up hills. Mine has a special design that eliminates this, but it is a fair question).
This turned out to be Peter Hartley, who is the president of the Townsville HPV Enthusiasts Group, and a bent rider himself. An HPV is a Human Powered Vehicle, and HPV groups are people interested in any type of HPV whatsoever. Bicycles (recumbent and otherwise) fit nicely into this group, as well as trikes, human powered boats, submarines and the like.
Peter invited me to a couple of events they had, and met some people that had some pretty nice homemade trikes. Why would someone build a homemade trike you ask? Well, because trikes have some compelling advantages, but commercially built trikes are pretty expensive. Someone with some skill in the machine shop can take a couple of old bicycles and make a nice stable, comfortable commuting vehicle with practically zero expense. The one on the right here has an actual office chair as the seat. You can see he hauls his daughter around on the trike, and life is good. In both cases, both front wheels are simply the front steering assembly and part of the frame from a diamond frame bicycle. A crossbar hooks them together, and to the frame that holds the foot cranks and pedals. A small tie-rod connects the front two tires together, and steering is just a chunk of the original handlebars. You don't get a blisteringly fast performing trike with Ackerman steering in this fashion, but you can get a good, solid, dependable, environmentally friendly vehicle for just about free.
The other thing I found there was a local guy that invented an HPV that puts my bike to shame for strangeness. This invention is called the BiQuadly. It's a four wheel, fully independent suspension, two wheel drive, multi-speed rig that's powered by both the arms and the feet. I've never seen anything quite like it. It's all a handmade prototype:.
I rode with Graham for a while, and it was nice to not be the exact center of attention for once. Graham also fixed up a couple of things on my bike for me. I bought a cycle alarm from Jacques before he left Vietnam. I had it mounted on the frame of my bike, but the plastic mounting block broke. Graham made me a new one out of steel, so I doubt it will break.
In Townsville, I also changed out my cranks on my bike from the standard 170 mm cranks to 175 mm cranks. There's a long story associated with this decision, that I'll defer to another page since only a cyclist would be interested. I also had trouble with my pedal hitting the guard around my chainring after I put longer cranks on. I've had trouble with this off and on since I got the bike, because the clearance is very small and it's hard to get the guard in exactly the right place. Every time the guard hits a wall or something, it knocks it out of whack.
When I put the new cranks on, the clearance was even smaller than with the old cranks, so I couldn't get it to clear no matter what I did. Graham has better eyes than I do, and noticed that the guard was deformed a bit. He corrected this using the obviously appropriate tools of a hammer and a block of wood. Now the guard still gets out of whack once in a while, but at least I can get it right again.
Lots has been written about the Australian Outback. I read a fair amount of it, but didn't find any of it really connecting with the actual experience all that well. For ordinary tourists traveling by car, the general consensus seems to be: " The Outback... Big... Flat... Empty... Boring.. Dull... Oh yeah, did I mention boring.". I didn't find it to be so at all. I probably would have found it frightfully dull if I was riding through it in a car, but I found cycling through it to be very nice, although challenging and frustrating at times.
I can verify at least part of the above statement. The Outback is BIG. I cycled through 2,200 km (1,400 miles) of it in 14 cycling days and just covered a very small portion of it. I rode about the same distance as from San Francisco to Amarillo, Texas and that just hits a few of the highlights of the Outback. I can also verify the Empty sentiment. In that distance, I passed through exactly 3 towns that had populations over 5,000. I went through a few more that were 1-2,000 and a whole bunch of Road Houses. The Northern Territory is five times the size of England, and has only 200,000 people living in it. Of that 200,000, half live in Darwin, 10% live in Alice Springs and the rest are scattered throughout the territory.
I didn't find the whole experience boring in the least though. This was beautiful cycling, and it coincided nicely with a good time in my life where I'm just now beginning to see what my body is capable of. I pushed myself to my limits in the Outback, and found the journey immensely satisfying.
After a few days in Townsville where I got the bike all dialed in and got caught up on my work, I started heading for Mount Isa, 1,000 km away. That seemed like it might be a good stopping point, as 1,000 km of the Outback seemed like it ought to be sufficient. Mount Isa is a mining town which interests me because of the mining I have in my background, so it sounded like a good target.
The first thing I did was ride through the Great Dividing Range. I had rain the first two days, but that didn't bother me much and I just kept going. I worked my way through the range, which took two days. When I got to the summit, my impression was "That's IT!". Apparently, whoever named the Great Dividing Range has never seen the Sierras, the Alps or the Rockies. The summit of the pass I went through was a whopping 550 meters (1,800 feet), thus making it about half as high as Sonora, which is a foothill town I grew up in that's in the foothills on the way to some real mountains. So the mountains had been calling me, but it was a false promise. There wasn't a single hill worthy of being called a real climb. I was a bit disappointed, but that's life. This did point out one unusual feature of Australian geography, of which the Outback is the prime example. Australia is pretty flat. The highest point is 2,745 meters (7,500 feet) and over 80% is below 500 meters (1,300 feet).
Once I was through the foothills, I dropped down a little bit and started across the flats on the other side, and then I was in The Outback.
Once I started across the Outback, I found the cycling to be excellent. Lots of people remark about how the Outback is unchanging, but I will contend that for most of the roads I traveled, that just means people aren't paying attention. As I went along, I found that the scenery changed in subtle ways every few km. I'd ride along for an hour lost in the cycling, and then look around and find things quite a bit different from the last time I looked. The changes are subtle, but obviously not that subtle if I could notice them. The vegetation changed constantly, including the type, composition, height and species of the scrub. The soil and elevations changed. The colors changed. Lots of other things change as you go along, but the changes don't jump out and hammer you. I don't know my plants well enough to say exactly what changed, but they did change enough to make the ride interesting.
Traffic on the Outback highways is quite light, and in general even more bicycle friendly than the people back on the Bruce Highway. In the Outback, you have what's known as the Outback Wave. People riding the Outback tend to wave at each other whenever they pass, and the wave is kind of a stamp of your personality. Most people that have been doing it a while will casually lift two fingers off the top of the wheel, and that's the wave. Some people split up waving duties, with the passenger giving a full wave, and the driver not doing anything. Some people get so enthusiastic about the whole deal that both people wave. Lots of people also just went buggy about anyone riding a bicycle through the Outback, and everyone in the car would be waving, giving a thumbs up, honking and generally carrying on. I ultimately decided that my personal wave style would be simply lifting two fingers of my right hand off the shifter bar where I habitually keep them, although I'd occasionally lift my left hand or just nod my head.
One thing you have to get used to in the Outback is Road Trains. These are trucks with up to four trailers following behind, with a total length of up to 55 meters (175 feet). For you yanks, that's about 50% longer than the longest truck you've ever seen on an American road. Mike V counted 62 tires and six spares on one of them. When one of these babies passes you, you know you've been passed. I was a bit nervous about them at first, but generally didn't find them to be a problem. The only real consideration a cyclist needs to give a Road Train is that it takes them about 1 km to go over into the other lane and come back over. They need a bit more room to do that safely, so there are more conditions where you want to get off the road and let them by then there would be with ordinary trucks.
One phenomena with Road Trains that took some getting used to is the wind they generate, or Truck Suck as cyclists call it. Depending on how fast the truck is going, the direction of the wind, and the size of the trailers, you can get seriously hammered by wind. The toughest ones were the three trailer cattle trucks when they were going into the wind in the opposite direction from my line of travel. There was quite a bit of time on the Barkley Highway, where I was cruising along with a moderate tailwind, so I was cruising along nicely. A Road Train would come from the opposite direction, and the blast of wind would feel like getting hit with a cyclone. In lots of cases, it literally was enough to make a good attempt at sucking the helmet off the top of my head, and I would have lost it without the neck strap. This kind of scared me the first few times until I started paying attention. About the tenth time it happened, I started watching very carefully exactly what happened to my front tire when they went by. The net result was exactly nothing. My track didn't budge left or right by even an inch. I would slow down a bit, but then just crank back up to speed. All in all, it was quite a thrill.
The really nice part of cycling the outback, is that it's what I'd call Pure Cycling. For several hours a day, I would be out there with only one car to deal with about every five to ten minutes and I could just lay into the cranks and see how fast I could go. For hours at a time my world would focus down to nothing but my legs, the cranks, my cycle computer and the hawks. When cycling, I've always had a phenomena I called The Machine. Others may call it The Zone. This is when everything in my body and the bicycle seems to be working in perfect harmony. My breathing is just right, my legs are just right, heartbeat is spot on, I'm moving right along, and I feel like I can feel the whole thing just spinning along smoothly like some great cycling machine. I've only been able to achieve this particular state before on very long and steep hills, and then only for short times. In the Outback, my physical conditioning seems to finally be getting somewhere close to what I want, because I could feel the machine working for hours at a time and I literally flew down the road. I've been getting this feeling for a few minutes at a time all along, but here's the place where it really started getting to be a regular occurrence.
In Queensland, they have what they call Grids but would be called Cattle Guards in the U.S. These are a series of bars across the road that cattle won't cross. I came to the first one and didn't pay it much attention since I'd been over cattle guards before, and that was a mistake. The first one I hit appeared to be specifically designed to damage bicycles. I hit it going about half my normal speed and it about rattled the fillings out of my teeth. I'm surprised it didn't damage something on the bike (maybe it did). After that, I slowed down to a crawl to go over them. Now the interesting thing about this is that once I got over into the Northern Territory, they changed over to a completely different style that's just as effective which I could blast over at full tilt with nary a problem. I also saw a few instances of what almost everyone in the U.S. uses. It turns out that cattle aren't exactly the brightest bulbs in the circuit, so all you really have to do is paint a bunch of white lines across the road and it works just as well.
I did run into bunches of cattle here and there, and most of them didn't seem to have a clue what do do with a bicycle. They would watch a road train pass without batting an eye, but ran from me.
Another thing I ran into quite a bit in the Outback is Caravaners. Caravans are what yanks call RVs. They're usually trailers or motor homes. At a lot of rest stops I'd run into Caravaners, and they were always the nicest people. For example, I came into one of the small outback towns pretty late one night and the grocery store was closed. The map I had showed what appeared to be another small town or road house about 50 km down the road, and another one at 75 km. I just figured I'd get lunch there just like I'd been doing all along. I had purchased a food bag for my bike in Townsville, but didn't have any food in it yet. When I got to my first rest stop, I asked some caravaners what the towns were like, and found out that they were either just rest stops, or places where towns used to be that died out. This was a bit of a bummer, but no worries though. The caravaners just offered to make me a couple of sandwiches, and I was good to go with a lesson learned at a very cheap price. I found that everywhere as I went along. Any time I stopped at a rest stop, the caravaners would always help out. Nearly everyone offered me a cuppa (cup of coffee or tea), or a sandwich, advice, information about the road or whatever. One group had a nice map that covered an area I was missing, and they just gave it to me. When I made camp, if there were any caravaners they would always offer to cook my food. Most of the time, it seemed if I'd made it into the camp in time for tea (Ozzies call dinner tea) they would have just had me sit down at the table. All in all, I found the caravaners to be a universally wonderful group to bump into and I much appreciated the help they gave me.
Mount Isa is a small mining town, or rather a small town attached to a very large underground mine. It's the biggest mine in Australia, and one of the biggest in the world in several categories. All of the mining is underground, except for one big open pit that was dug in the 50s that the current operators are filling back in. Mount Isa Mines is one of the most highly mechanized and cost efficient mines in the world. It's the world's biggest single producer of silver and lead and is amongst the world's top ten for copper and zinc. It is also one of the few areas in the world where the four minerals are found in close proximity. As Australia's largest underground mine, it has a daily output of around 35,000 tonnes of ore. Trust me on this one... that's a lot of ore.
There are two tours of the mine site available. Unfortunately, I couldn't get into the underground tour because it was booked out a week ahead, so I took the above ground tour by bus. It was a good tour, and very interesting for an old industrialist like me. The mine site is big, they have a lot of equipment, and lots of fun machines to study. I would really have liked to get out and wander around, but couldn't figure out an effective way to accomplish that. I had to content myself with being a tourist.
As an outside observer that knows one or two things about mines, I have to say I was impressed with the place. It was very clean and efficient looking for a mine, and they appear to be making substantial efforts to maintain environmentally sound mining practices. I like this, as it's what the world needs. Like it or not, we need mines and all the industry that goes with it but it's up to the industries to be environmentally sound. One example is that they built the world's largest sulfuric acid plant. This takes sulfur dioxide from the stack gasses of the copper smelter, and converts it to sulfuric acid that's used in a fertilizer manufacturing plant. This both removes a fairly toxic gas from the waste stream, and makes a useful byproduct out of it. Everybody wins. They also have tons of stuff to keep the lead smelter safe, and lots of checks to be sure it's working correctly.
The food in Mount Isa was pretty terrible up until the very last night. I'd tried various strategies for finding good food, and finally found it by going to the restaurant that was geographically closest to the hotel I was staying at. Life works out like that sometimes. This turned out to be an excellent Ethiopian restaurant, and they had a different style of Ethiopian food than what I've had before.
I made the 1,000 km (625 mile) run to Mount Isa in 7 days. This was my best time so far, although at least part of that was because I had prevailing tailwinds. The winds weren't all that strong, but they did help me at least part of the way. This was a 30% improvement over my best week in Vietnam so I could tell I'm starting to get into some kind of shape. Once I was there, I wasn't anywhere near tired of the Outback, so I decided to travel on to Alice Springs, or maybe even Ayer's Rock. All along I'd been saying I'd go to Mount Isa and then decide, but that was just kidding myself since any time I see somewhere I might go, it seems that becomes a place I must go. Oh well....
I spent a few days in Mount Isa getting my gear up to par for the tougher Outback conditions I'd encounter on the way to Alice Springs. I had been carrying a sleeping bag all along, but I didn't have a tent or any cooking equipment. I bought both in Mount Isa, and made another attempt to purge stuff out of my pannier bags. Of course, I've been dumping stuff all the way back to Saigon. When I left San Francisco, I had 28 kg (63 pounds) of stuff in the bags. Quite a bit of that was books and things I knew I'd leave in France or Egypt, and some extra clothing for the first 2 months of the trip when I wouldn't be cycling. By the time I got to Saigon, I'd dumped quite a bit of the stuff. When I started riding in Brisbane and actually carrying all that stuff, I got another lesson in what I really needed. I could probably find my way back to Saigon by following the trail of extra junk I left in hotel garbage cans like a trail of breadcrumbs. I can remember the day I finally got rid of my favorite pair of Levis. I really liked them, but they make terrible travel clothes since I had three pairs of pants I bought in Saigon that together weighed less than the one pair of Levis, and Levis won't air dry if you give them a month to do it. Besides that, they seemed to have stretched out a lot and they hung off of me like a scarecrow's rags.
By the time I hit Mount Isa, my packs were pretty lean and mean. I had 21 kg (46 pounds) of stuff in my bags, which is fairly lean considering that 6 kg (13 pounds) is just my computer and other assorted electronic gizmos. I added a 2 kg (4 pound) tent to the mix, and had to carry a lot more water in the Outback as well. In the end, I wound up carrying 23 kg (50 pounds) of stuff, and about 8 kg (18 pounds) of food and water (mostly water) for a total extra load of 31 kg (70 pounds). Of course, I'd lost 10 kg (22 pounds) off of my fat gut since the start of the trip, so my weight when I rolled out of Mount Isa fully loaded for the Outback was only 21 kg (50 pounds) more than I had when riding the bike empty around Hanoi :)
Since I'd set a new personal record on my run into Mount Isa, I naturally decided to see how far I could push myself. Back in the old days when I did my first Century (1 month ago), I started thinking about what would be a really tough goal to shoot for... something that would give me extensive bragging rights since that's the only thing that ever motivates me athletically. One obvious target is a Double Century (200 miles - 320 km in a single day), which I'm not quite ready for. Another one would be what I call a Kilo, which is 1,000 miles (1,600 km) in a single week. I'm sure there's a proper term for it, but I just made that one up.
In Mount Isa, I decided to have a go at the Kilo, with great plans to write up a long detailed account of either the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat. I'm not exactly sure what made me think I was ready to increase my maximum weekly distance by 60 percent (600 km), or what made me think I might be able to average 220 km per day for seven days straight when my previous maximum was 180 km for one day, but I figure it's better to shoot for the sky and miss than to shoot for a dead skunk and hit it. So, I got up bright and early after a 3 day rest to give it a go.
Day 1 started out pretty promising. My first day out after an extended period of rest is usually not my fastest. I loaded up with food and water so I could camp on the side of the road as necessary because some of my days on the run to Mount Isa had been limited simply by the location of the towns, and also because the towns were getting farther apart. I wanted to be able to cycle as far as I could, so I wouldn't have any whiney excuses. Besides that, my next country will require camping for 3 weeks, so I thought I should debug my camping gear.
The trip to Camooweal was 195 km (122 miles), and I reached it easily over an hour before dark. At that point, I had a choice of pressing on to get more miles, or stopping there to sleep in a proper bed. I decided I would rather get a better nights sleep and some hot food, and try to make up the 25 km (1-1.5 hours cycling) later.
The ride had a bit of climbing from Mount Isa, but nothing large enough to call a proper hill. I was riding with something of a tailwind part of the time, but not a particularly strong one. I averaged 25 kph for the day.
On day 2, I decided to see just how far I could push myself. The next lodging after Camooweal was a road house at 265 km (165 miles), and I set out to try to hit it. If I could make it, I would be back on the pace, and I'd have yet another record. The cycling went along quite well through the Barkley Tablelands, which were quite beautiful cycling. It was quite a thrill to see the cycle computer click over to 200 km (125 miles) for the very first time. That happened just about sunset. I continued on for another hour which put me at exactly 220 km (137 miles). This was the pace I needed to maintain every day for the week, and it was just starting to get full-out dark. At the time, I was still reluctant to ride in the dark, and at exactly 220 km I ran into a rest stop that had a couple of caravans parked there. I decided I'd accept that distance which left me 21 km behind the pace, but doing well.
I went into the rest stop and proceeded to make dinner. I was quite prepared to wolf down a cold can of beef stew and a can of asparagus, but the caravaners were as nice as Ozzie caravaners always are, and offered to heat it up for me. I of course had the stove I'd purchased in Mount Isa, but when it gets right down to it after 220 km I'd rather eat cold food than mess with the stove. So they heated up my food and made me some toast as a bonus, so life was good. I had some long-life milk to go with it and I was happy.
In the meantime, I set up my tent. Now, maybe set up is too strong of a word. I threw it out on the ground, and got ready to start putting up the poles and whatnot, but decided they seemed superfluous. In the end, I just threw my sleeping bag and my valuables pannier bag into the tent and crawled in. It turned out that I was correct, and there's really no need for the tent poles unless it's really hot. I completed the ensemble with a cyclist's pillow, which is constructed by taking a few shirts, pants and the like, rolling them up and stuffing the lot into another shirt. Ideally, you pull the cleaner clothes out of the pannier bag since your nose is going to be against it all night. It makes a better pillow than I've had in half the hotels I've stayed in, and it adds zero grams to my traveling weight.
Somewhere along this road, I passed from Queensland into the Northern Territory. The time zone changed by a half hour, but I didn't bother changing my clocks since I already had the sunrise and sunset times memorized. After all, I was in the Outback, and what difference could a half hour make?
Not too long after crossing the border, I noticed something curious. Queensland seems to have figured out a way to ship all of their flies to the Northern Territory. I just about never saw a fly at all in Queensland, but at the first few rest stops in NT I got swarmed with them. I was afraid to take my helmet off because I thought they might carry it off. Some of them would also follow me for a few km until it finally because apparent that a fly can't quite keep up with a bicycle.
Day three was a good day, and left me pretty optimistic. The cycling machine was firing on all cylinders, and I got to the Three Ways Road House at 235 km (147 miles) about an hour after dark. This both proved that I was capable of the distance, and that riding after dark wasn't all that hard. In fact, I got to where I quite enjoyed riding after dark in the Outback. The Outback has a big sky with lots of stars, and it's quite peaceful. I can hear the very few cars coming from a long way back, and for maximum safety I just get clear off the road any time a car comes from either direction. I get off for cars behind me just in case they can't see my flashers, and I get off for cars coming towards me because they always have lights so bright I can't see, and they interfere with my hearing of cars behind me as well.
Three Ways Roadhouse was a rough looking place, and the room I got was rough but serviceable. Compared to my tent, it was pure luxury, which just goes to prove I still need to toughen up a bit. The big surprise there was the meal. It was excellent, and that's not just because I'd cycled 235 km and would have eaten a frozen dog. What I'm finding is that you can't tell a thing about a roadhouse's food by how the place looks. I fully expected lousy food, but the food I had there was the best I had at any Outback Roadhouse.
My average speeds were still doing pretty well for the time in the saddle. The last three days I'd been riding for an average of about 9 1/2 hours per day over an elapsed time of 11 hours at an average speed of 23 kph. Not earth shattering speed records, but pretty good for my conditioning. My 235 km for the day was 15 km ahead of the daily pace, which put me only 7 km behind the overall pace.
Day four is where it came time to pay the piper. The prevailing winds in this part of the Outback are Northeast. This meant that I'd been taking advantage of a tailwind at least part of the way across the Barkley Highway for the last three days without quite realizing how strong the winds were. On day 4, I started south and found out immediately. First off, there were a lot more winds period than there had been on the Barkley tablelands. I could tell this because whenever I stopped in the previous 3 days, the wind had been quite mild, but generally in the tailwind direction.
On this day, the winds started hammering me immediately in the morning, and didn't let up all day. I spent most of the day trying to figure out if the headwind component was slowing me down, or if a crosswind alone was enough to slow you down, or if I was just frazzed out from the previous three days. I finally decided it was just the winds doing the damage, because whenever the winds disappeared my speeds jumped immediately back up to a respectable manly speed. This would last about five minutes and the wind would come back and I'd be back to crawling along at 16 kph. I'd spent most of the day repeating my mantra: " This is fun... This is fun... This is fun...", but it wasn't working quite as well as one would hope.
Later research showed that a crosswind does in fact slow you down quite a bit, and so the wind I was getting would have slowed me down even if it had been slightly southeast instead of northeast. It was also very fatiguing because it gusted around quite a bit, and every gust required me to correct my track a little bit. In still air, I just cycle along on auto-pilot and the bike follows where it's supposed to. In shifting cross-winds, I have to constantly correct.
Toward the afternoon, I ran into some hills. Now these wouldn't really qualify as serious hills, but at least I was going up hill, and the wind temporarily died down as I was climbing them. My speed didn't really go up, but I find it much more satisfying climbing hills than fighting a headwind. After a few km of climbing, I topped out on the top of a small range, and ran into the Devils Marbles. These are gigantic marble boulders that appear to be precariously balanced across the tablelands. By then I was talking to myself, and I said "Cool... Rocks", and stopped to take some photos, not even realizing what they were until later. In an ideal world, I would have been less obsessed with distance and I'd have spent a half day checking them out.
After the rocks, I took off across the top of the hills, and for about an hour there was no wind at all. My speed jumped right back up to a respectable level, and I was happy again because I could now blame my lack of distance on the wind, and I still held out some hope that the wind might die down, and I might be able to get back on track.
I can't even begin to explain how satisfying it is to see 22-27 kph when you've been fighting all day for 13-16. I continued along until about a half hour after dark when I arrived at Wycliffe Wells with the completely pathetic distance of 162 km (100 miles... funny how a month can change your perspective).
I did some calculations that night to see if there was still some chance of getting back on track (as if I hadn't been doing them in my head over and over all day long). It turned out I needed to do 262 km (164 miles) per day for the last three days to make it. Most of the last day would be going east again, so I'd have a tailwind (or at least no cross wind), and I probably would have some downhills somewhere along the line since I'd been climbing steadily since Mount Isa. My performance for that day was OK for the amount of wind, and I had just two days of wind left so I thought I just might be able to push things and make it. I'd obviously have to ride a lot more hours per day, but I hadn't really hit my limits yet so I decided to give it a go and find out what the limits are.
On day 5, I decided to go for broke. I set my alarm for very early, and was on the road by 5:30. These were not ideal cycling conditions, since it was dark, windy and freezing-ass cold (about 0 C - 32 F). It was nice to know I can cycle in that temperature, and all I really need is some better socks. I just couldn't warm up though, and so I was cycling along at my normal warm-up speed until well after sunup. I couldn't tell if I was suffering from the cold, or being held back by the wind, or just generally lagging. The wind was still strong, but not as bad as the previous day except for being cold.
About 10:00, I reached what I call Bonkville. For those that don't understand the term, to Bonk is to flat out run out of energy. It's the point where you can try all you want to, but just don't have any real performance left in you. I hit that point about 10:00. That's when I had been struggling along at 13-16 kph for over 4 hours, and finally realized that I just didn't have any more speed in me, and it was completely impossible to make my objective. The wind was gusting on and off, but I wasn't flashing up to my normal speed when it died down like I should have been. I stopped and immortalized the point of failure in the above photo, and then limped along for 60 km (38 miles) to the next real bed which was at Barrow Creek. Now I should point out that I hadn't really bonked if I could still ride 60 km, because a true bonk is when you can't go any more at all. However, being unable to maintain any better than 14 kph is close enough to a bonk for me.
I ended up the day with a pathetic 94 km taking 6.5 hours in the saddle at 14 kph :( I think if a five year old on a Big Wheel raced me she would have beat me. I was still fighting the wind, but only eeked out about half the distance I'd done the day before, and was worn out by then.
I arrived at Barrow Creek around 1:00, and I was done in for the day. I ate lunch, hung out and did a bit of work, ate dinner, and went to bed early to sleep for 12 hours.
Since I'd clearly failed in my primary objective, I looked to meet my secondary objective of improving my 1,000 km time. I'd always known the 1,000 miles was a long shot, but wanted to have a goal to push myself with. I was now just going to go to Alice Springs instead of directly to Ayer's Rock, because I wanted to spend a couple of days there anyway. I was originally planning to blast through there just because I wanted to hit the 1,000 mile mark. Alice Springs was an easy two days ride, but way to far for one day. So on day 5, I turned off both of my alarms, slept in late, and hung out at the pub chatting with the people there until 10:00. Then I leisurely climbed onto the Strange Machine, and rode the nice, easy, relaxing 160 km (100 miles) to Aileron. Of course, the wind was blowing just as hard and my speed of 19 kph was nothing to write home about, but with such an easy target, why worry about that.
I arrived in Aileron just after dark, had a nice dinner and a chat with the people I met in the restaurant. One young lady asked me if I'd been on the Fraser Island tour, and it turns out she was sitting next to me on the bus for the first hour and she remembered me. This happens fairly frequently, as I run into people I've run into before. I also ran into some nice people that work in a grape farm that they've carved out of the desert about 70 km from there. They invited me to come spend a day there, and ordinarily I would have but by then I had a schedule to keep since I had a planned departure date from Sydney, and I still needed to at least make the 1,000 km mark.
On day 7, I knew I only had 140 km to go to Alice Springs, and part of it was downhill so I slept in late, had breakfast and sat down to write this part of the web page. I'd been thinking all those long days of how I would write up my soaring triumph. It would be cowardly to not document my crashing defeat in the same level of detail, and it's probably just as entertaining anyway. So I wrote it up in the exact amount of detail I was planning for the successful version.
Intermission - Riding... Riding... Riding...
Everything up to the end of the last paragraph was written before I left Aileron at 10:30 on day 7, assuming I'd just crank out that last 140 km and that would be that. I was to be punished for such arrogance. The Outback decided I needed a lesson in humility, and delivered it forthwith.
First off, the winds came back in force but apparently decided they'd been too easy on me previously. This time the wind was as strong as it had ever been, but it turned from a Northeast wind to a dead on I'm serious this time no holds barred Northern headwind. At first I thought I was just bonked even worse than before, but after stopping to check the wind direction a few times (it's not rocket science... throw some dirt into the air and watch the dust move), it was proven to be an absolutely nasty almost constant headwind. When it wasn't an outright headwind, it shifted from side to side and just hammered me first from the left and then from the right.
To add insult to injury, I then rode 70 km through the longest, straightest, flattest, dullest, dreariest, and most boring mind numbing road in the known universe. Earlier I commented on how the people that write about the Outback exaggerate how unchanging it is. Well, this particular stretch of road is the one they must have been writing about. For 70 km (45 miles), which I crawled along at 14 kph (do the math - that's 5 hours), there wasn't a single turn, hill, change in vegetation, animal, cattle grid or anything to disrupt the frustration of crawling along at a pace I can almost walk at. Cars would pass me, and I'd watch them to see how long until they disappeared. They never did disappear the way they would if they went over a hill or around the corner. Somewhere a few km ahead, they would just get hard to see, and then gradually fade out. The vegetation looked so similar I thought someone was riding behind me and moving the stuff I'd just passed to a point just in front of me. I was very excited when I finally came to a corner. This photo shows exactly what the road looked like most of the day.
To further add to the annoyances of this particular ride, I ran into the least bicycle friendly people I had met so far in Australia. Earlier I commented on how great Ozzie drivers are. That's entirely true for every stretch except this one. The weird thing is that people here could see down the road halfway to Antarctica, and there was only one car about every five minutes, but they would still go whizzing by me at blinding speeds about 3 feet off to my right. This would be business as usual for American drivers, but not for Ozzies. I also ran into the absolutely worst jerk in all of Australia on this stretch. The road didn't have a shoulder, so I was riding in the lane where I belonged. One driver came up behind me at a time when there was a car coming the other way. He did exactly what nearly any Australian driver would do, which is slow down for the 20 seconds it takes for the other car to pass, and then pass me slowly and safely in the other lane, having lost just about no time. Another jerk came up behind him that apparently couldn't wait an extra 30 seconds, so he blasted by me at full on highway speeds on the LEFT side, in the dirt and rocks at the side of the road. I ended up riding between the two cars, one of which was going blindingly fast and throwing dirt and rocks up at me. It happened so fast I didn't really react to it until it was over, but after he went by, I was saying " Dude!! You're in the Outback. Where can you possibly be going that 30 seconds makes that much difference?". He didn't answer, even when I rephrased the question using universal sign language.
Along about sundown, I'd been crawling along at 15 kph as I'd been doing all day, and the wind died down like it does every night. I was only 35 km (22 miles) from Alice Springs which would only take a couple of hours. However, at about that time my front wheel started wobbling around any time I approached any decent speed. It appeared to be a lump on my front tire I'd bought in Ayer, which would be the second time that happened with that tire. I was in no mood to fix it, and riding with a wacky front tire in the dark just to prove a point seemed like a bad idea, so I picked a likely looking spot in the bush and made camp. I figured I should test out the stove I'd purchased in Mount Isa anyway, and test my tent and gear for winter conditions. (Oh, yeah... Forgot to mention I rode from summer conditions into winter conditions over the last week). I tested the stove which made an adequate cup of tea eventually, but I wasn't all that happy with it so it's going into the scrap bin. I crawled into the sleeping bag, and found it isn't quite up to the task of handling that temperature either. I was OK if I wore my fleece and pants inside the sleeping bag, but needed something better for my feet and I could really use a Thermal sleeping pad. In the morning, I got up, cracked the ice off the top of the tent (that's right. It was around 0 C or 32 F), and tried to make tea again. This time the stove completely failed, so I just headed out.
I chugged along for 20 km or so, and ran into a New Zealander that's doing serious Outback cycling, not this easy relaxing ride down the highway stuff I'm doing. He's riding the dirt tracks all the way across from East to West. He was only on the highway for 30 km to get from one dirt road to the next. We stood around and chatted for a while, and had a great time. He's an artist from New Zealand, and gets hit with the cycling bug periodically. He's making the trip in 2 1/2 months, so Good On Ya, Mate.
Next, I hit some downhills that a guy had promised me back at one of the roadhouses. They weren't properly downhills, but they were the kind of hills I could have flown down and had a fabulous time, but I still hadn't fixed my front wheel. So at the end of the last day of the trip, I was going down a hill, with no wind, and using my brakes to keep my speed down to about 16 kph. I'd say I am now properly chastised for my arrogance... at least for the moment.
During the week, I improved my best time for 1,000 km from 7 days to 5 1/2 and it would have been 5 without the tire trouble. I improved my maximum weekly distance from 1,000 km to 1,165 km, both of which are about a 20% improvement from my best previous week (last week), a 40% improvement over my pace from a month ago, and 50% over my biggest week in Vietnam. I increased my maximum daily distance from 180 km (112 miles) to 234 km (146 miles) for 30% improvement. The conditions were also much more difficult than anyplace I've ever cycled before, so I'm pretty happy with the results. I didn't have any real hills to speak of, but I'll take a hill over that headwind any day. During the course of the week my weight went down another kg (2.2 pounds), which put me under the 200 pound mark for the first time since 1980, and down 11.5 kg (25 pounds) below my December weight. I'm also starting to look somewhat like a cyclist these days, so I'm pretty happy with that.
Of course, the gauntlet has been thrown down, and once it's on the ground I have to keep trying until I make it. I just need some more conditioning. There's a lot of room for improvement. I spent 51 hours in the saddle to hit 1,000 km, and the world record is just over 23 hours all in one day (of course, it was made on a recumbent bike). I obviously will never make a serious run at that, but I will improve. My next task is to improve my speeds over short distances like 100 miles.
After the last two weeks, I can tell you this: The Outback is a big place that's very sparsely populated. I rode as far in my last 12 cycling days as I rode in 3 months in Vietnam. After over 2,000 km of the Outback, I only covered a very small part of it. One could easily spend months exploring it, and I was a bit disappointed that I now had a schedule to keep for my next planned country. I suspect I'll hear the Outback calling me again sometime in the future. I'll have to tackle the dirt roads some day I think.
Australia has several spots that could be considered the center of the continent. You could calculate the center of gravity of the landmass, or the spot most distant from any ocean, or the center of the biggest north-south axis and east-west axis then take their intersection. No matter how you slice it though, Aileron is the closest habitation to any of these three center points, and Alice Springs is the closest real town.
The three big attractions of the central area are all geologic. The best known, particularly outside Oz is Uluru, or Ayers Rock. Uluru is the Aboriginal name. Ayers Rock is the European name. The Ozzies seem to be trying to change the name back to the Aboriginal, but the new name doesn't seem to be sticking any better than Ho Chi Minh City is. Maybe it takes a couple of generations. Kings Canyon is a canyon similar to the Grand Canyon in the U.S. but smaller. The Olgas are a set of uplift mountains that are quite similar to Ayers Rock, but have a different composition and shape. Of the three, Ayers Rock is the only one I'd ever heard of, and I headed for it somewhat arbitrarily from Mount Isa because it was the most interesting thing within 1,000 miles.
Alice Springs is the biggest town in central Oz, but it's pretty small by most standards. It has the distinction of being the place I could finally stop for a while, and I was definitely ready for a stop. It's a nice little town, but I was running a bit behind on my emails and stuff because of the last week goofing off riding down the highway. I settled in for a couple of days to get caught up. I was also running quite late on taking care of my visas and whatnot for the next leg of the trip, and I hadn't even purchased my airline tickets yet.
I read somewhere that exercise is an appetite suppressant. I didn't quite believe it until I started thinking about the amount of food I was eating this week compared to my output. I could probably have done a bit better with more food along the way. As soon as I stopped my appetite came back with a vengeance. For the next two days I ate like a starving wolf. I lucked out in finding a really good restaurant attached to the hotel, and I tend to stick with a place I like. I had camel, kangaroo and wallaby. The camel was quite good, although they served a couple of steaks that would have killed two ordinary men. I could only manage to eat about double my usual portion, and had to save the rest for a mid-afternoon snack the next day. The kangaroo was very tough, not quite as good as it was in Brisbane and definitely not something I'd recommend. The wallaby, which is just a young kangaroo was excellent. They also had a fabulous crème broule with lime in it which is somewhat unusual, and some kind of plum sauce that was very good.
I would have preferred to stay here and explore the area by cycle. I figured I could do a credible job of seeing all the local sites by cycle in about a week or two, but I was running out of time. I already had a plan for my next country that involved going on a ride with a local amateur cycling club for a little 1,200 km run and it started on a particular day. Once I have a target ride I want to do, I have trouble talking myself out of it, so I'd been making plans to hit that. Working back from the date of the ride, meant that I only had about four days in the Alice Springs area if I wanted to have any real time in Sydney. This meant I didn't have time to hit the good spots by bicycle, so I joined up with a tour group for a 3 day tour to Ayer's Rock, The Olgas and Kings Canyon.
Lodging in Alice Springs was pretty expensive by Australia standards, and the tours were all pretty expensive as well. Of course, I'm just whining about this because I'm used to the lower prices I've seen everywhere else. At the Ayer's Rock Resort, I'm paying about what I would pay in the U.S., and in Alice Springs I'm paying about 2/3 of that. I could probably have found cheaper digs in Alice Springs with some work, but the prices aren't far enough out of line to be worth the trouble.
After a couple of days to get my affairs in order, I headed out for a three day tour-bus style trip to the three main attractions in the area. The first day, I figured out that I've been spoiled by the good life on a bicycle. Riding through the Outback in a bus is DULL DULL DULL after you're used to seeing it at the proper pace. This particular stretch of the Outback should have been much more interesting because there was a lot more vegetation than I'd been seeing due to once every ten years heavy rain, and I had a good bus driver explaining things. However, I found that spending two hours covering 100 km seems much longer than spending a day at it. It's weird.
About 600 million years ago, southern Australia had a range of mountains about the size of the Himalayas. The center of the continent is a big depression, so during periods of a lot of rainfall it becomes a big inland sea for a few million years. During a period of heavy rainfall lasting quite a while, the rain eroded the mountains away and it ran down into the inland sea. One set of mountains eroded away in the form of large boulders and other sediment, and this formed a pile in the sea of materials in that form. Another part of the mountains eroded down as smaller pieces for some reason, so that part of the sea was filled with much smaller rocks packed in with sediment.
Over time, a big layer of this material built up in the inland sea, and after a while another uplift came along and pressed the sea bottom up to make a big mound. The rain continued and eroded away part of these mounds. Eventually, the weather became dryer like it's been for the last geologic period, and the inland sea dried up. The mountains continued to erode away but at a much reduced rate.
At the end of this, there were two big chunks of rock pressed up on the basically flat regions of central Oz. Ayers Rock is made up almost entirely of the smaller pebbles, and the Olgas are made up of the large boulders packed together with sediment.
On the first day of the trip we went out to a bunch of photography sites for the Olgas, and then walked up a canyon in the middle of them. The Olgas are in the form of seven peaks, while Ayers Rock is one big rock. It was a nice pleasant day except for the inescapable feeling of being herded along like a cow. I also get the distinct impression many of my fellow travelers aren't quite in the condition I am. At the stop to walk up the canyon, the driver spent some time telling us how we really needed to be back in 45 minutes to see the sunset at Ayers Rock, so we wouldn't be able to make it to the end of the canyon. He patiently explained we needed to walk 20 minutes and then come back. I'm guessing experience has taught him that lots of people can't divide by two. I naturally went to the end of the canyon and was back 25 minutes and couldn't quite see what all the fuss was about. The nice thing about this particular trip though is that the last person actually made it back on time, and we left on time. Every time I've been on a bus tour in the past there was always one couple that was five minutes late, which is particularly frustrating on a long trip because it's always the same couple. Now, the bus tour I was on has a very sensible approach for this problem. They leave on time, whether everyone is back or not. They have a schedule and they stick with it. I like that.
If you look at the first photo above, you see just what's so weird about both Ayers Rock and the Olgas. These lumps just appear out of the middle of the ground out in the middle of nowhere with no other mountains anywhere around them. You don't see that all that often anywhere in the world. This kind of formation apparently requires an area that has cycles of heavy and light rainfall lasting millions of years. Australia is that. It's frequently called "the dry continent", and water is a big issue and one of the most limiting factors in development.
Uluru is more famous than the Olgas, although I'm not sure exactly why. Maybe it's just because it's such a weird thing, just having this big rock appear out of nowhere in the middle of flatsville. An alternative explanation is that it was just the first one to be touristized. There are a few mountain ranges here and there in central Oz, but the land all around both Uluru and the Olgas is pretty danged flat, and then these big rocks just appear out of nowhere.
The rock has nice colors at sunrise and sunset, both of which I photographed and both of which made for fairly dull photos. I'll show them in the photo gallery anyway.
For my tour of Ayers Rock, we drug out of bed early and went out to watch the sun come up, and then went over to the rock. We had about 3 hours with a choice of either climbing the rock which takes an hour up and another hour back down, or walking around the rock which takes 2 hours. I decided to do the easy walk around the rock... but of course, I had to climb it first. Fooled you, right?
The climb was a good half hours workout to the top. The slope of the rock is about 45 degrees, and the first 1/3 of it has a chain you can hang onto if you're not feeling all that secure. A fair number of people were holding onto the chains for dear life, but kept on going. The wind that had been hammering me all week on the Stuart Highway was out in force. About 1/3 of the way up, the chains ended and the crowds thinned out considerably. For the last 2/3 or the trip, the grade was generally less steep, although short sections were even steeper. The surface of the rock is very porous, and has lots of small depressions spaced about half a meter apart (1-2 feet), and 1-2 cm (1/2 - 1 inch) deep. This made an excellent gripping surface, so even though the whole climb felt pretty dangerous with the high winds blasting me as I walked along narrow ledges with long drops below them, it wasn't bad at all. I saw a surprising number of people making the trip. You can get somewhat of a feel for the winds by looking at my jacket and pants in this photo. Also notice the Olgas in the background.
All in all, the trip to Ayers Rock was a nice run. I also managed to start meeting more people along the way that were sharing the trip, and that always makes a trip nicer. It's the best part of joining an organized tour. In the end, it kind of balances out the boredom of a bus ride and makes for a good trip. That's always the tradeoff with tours.
You can get a kind of an idea of the relative flatness of Oz with this photo. This is a panorama photo for about half a circle around the top of Ayers Rock.
Kings Canyon is sometimes billed as sort of the Grand Canyon's little brother. In this case, it's a very little brother, but it was a nice canyon to walk around. I joined the group for a nice 2 hour hike around the top of the canyon. It became obvious that the tour operators must have a long history of having to deal with tourists that don't know their own limitations. They gave constant reminders of how difficult the climbs are, and did their best to talk anyone that wasn't up to the task out of making the trip. For example, the hill to the right is called "Cardiac Hill", and is billed as something you really wouldn't want to tackled if you weren't sure of yourself. I found the hill relatively easy of course, but even for someone that's not a cyclist I don't think it would be all that tough. It's about as tough as doing about 1/4 of the Mist Trail in Yosemite, without the water.
Our Intrepid Explorer Guide Alex explained the geology of the canyon to us. It turns out that this canyon was formed about the same time as the rocks, but instead of being the bottom of the inland sea at the time, this was a river, tributary or some other section of flowing water. You can clearly see the flow lines in some of the rocks. The rock is mostly brownish, except for parts that are exposed to the wind. These are bleached red by the constant hammering with red sand.
Alex also explained some of the plants along the way, along with the uses that the Aboriginals made of them. One interesting plant they had is a tobacco like plant that makes normal tobacco look like bubble gum in the nicotine department. The nicotine in these plants is five to ten times stronger than American tobacco. The Aboriginals would dry this out, and mix it with kangaroo dung. Then they would chew on this when they needed to travel a long distance and stay awake. After they chewed on it for a while, they'd put it behind their ear for some reason.
The rocks of the canyon collect moisture in two ways. One is just absorbing rainwater, and then having it seep back out. The other is through condensation of dew in the morning. Where conditions are right (e.g. not a lot of sun), you get various kinds of plants growing. One is a fern that hasn't changed significantly in 200 million years. This fern joins some on Fraser Island as the oldest known plants that haven't evolved significantly.
One area is called the Garden of Eden. It's a part of the canyon that's always in the shade and conditions are just right to collect water. So out in the middle of country that looks a lot like a desert, you end up with this:
From an old rock cruncher like me, the most interesting part was man-made. In the 1800s when the settlers were first establishing Alice Springs, they needed some building stone. Most of the surface stones to be found are pretty low quality, so they brought up some kind of big saw gizmo and cut rock off the edge of the canyon. Take a careful look at the sides of the canyon right under the people across the other side, and compare that to the natural edges you can find to the right or left of that. I kept trying to picture what kind of machine the settlers might have had in the late 1800s that could have made a cut like that, but I'm drawing a complete blank.
All in all, the trip to the three attractions of the area were a good time and I'd recommend them. I'm kind of up in the air about whether it would have been better to cycle here or do it the way I did. Transportation wise, cycling is obviously more fun, but I wouldn't have met the same people if I were cycling, and I think overall I probably would have missed out on a good time.
Next - Sydney