Month: January 2015

Cairns: The End Of The Road (For Now)

It’s taken a little longer than expected to get to Cairns.  It was the heat again, plus a dose of headwind.  Plus a little over-optimism.

I reckoned it was three long-ish days from Townsville.  For reasons now lost in the mists of time, I didn’t really ever check this in any detail.  Which was a mistake.  Even without the temperatures, which are warm enough for the locals to whinge about, I should have noticed that it was really a four-day ride for me.  And with the heat, the last leg of my Australian riding ended up taking five.

I’ve probably moaned enough about the weather in Australia (and, indeed, everywhere else).  So I’m going out of my way to accentuate the positives.  For example, on Monday evening, while I was cooling off after a tough day to Ingham, it sounded like it was raining outside.  As it turned out, it was just the aircon making peculiar noises.  But it made me stick my head outside, where I saw huge flocks of birds flying about in the dusk.

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It took me a while to work out that they were very quiet for a massive flock of birds.  And another few seconds to work out that they were actually bats.  Thousands of bats.  Migrating?  Heading out to hunt?  I don’t know.  But they certainly provided a spectacular, if slightly spooky, end to the day.

Between Ingham and Cairns, the landscape finally became more interesting, as the mountains pushed in towards the ocean.  Still a lot of sugar cane, but with a much prettier backdrop.  Thankfully, the road remained fairly flat, meandering around to find the lowest ‘passes’ through the hills; nothing over about 100 vertical metres, which was just as well as I sweated through the middle of the day.

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At Tully, I had a swift detour of the main road to visit the ‘Golden Gumboot’; probably the last ‘Big Thing’ of the trip.  Yep, that’s basically a giant welly with a newt on it, celebrating the fact that Tully is ‘A Pretty Wet Place’.  At least that’s what it said on the sign next to the boot.  I’d have gone for ‘A Very, Very Hot Place’, as I poured more liquid in, and guzzled an ice cream before wandering on northwards.

Yesterday (Day 200 of the trip), I finally rolled into Cairns, the end of my Australian cycling.  Not before passing Queensland’s highest mountain, Mount Bartle Frere, and dodging a few more ‘eccentric’ drivers as I approached the city.

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I’m being very generously hosted here by, erm, (one moment while I get this straight…) the sister and brother-in-law of a friend of a friend.  Think that’s right…  I’ve not even met the friend of a friend yet.  But they all seem very nice (though they also seemed to think that I’d want to go mountain-biking today after 2711 kilometres – very nearly 1700 miles – on the bike in Oz).  And I’m conveniently close to the airport for the next leg.

So what is next?  Well, the next country is Indonesia, and the obvious way to get there is to fly to Bali.  The perversity of airfares mean that it’s cheaper for me to get there via Perth (with a stop in Melbourne of all places; have a look at a map to see how crazy that is) than it would be in a straight line via Darwin.  I’ve no idea why that should be the case, but it is.  This will also hopefully give me the chance to catch up with an old school friend in Perth who I’ve not seen for an astonishingly long time.

The Beast and I are travelling to Western Australia on Sunday, and (although it’s not booked yet) on to Bali around Wednesday next week.  Which will gain me an awful lot of flying, and probably a week off the bike to recover before tackling Indonesia.  I really do need the break.

I met some Austrians a while ago, who’d been in Indonesia before hitting Australia.  They said the humidity is not as bad up there.  I do hope they’re right…

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Tropical Island Life (It’s Tough Out Here!)

I can’t imagine what made me think that a rest day on a tropical island would be a good idea.

Maybe the heat and noise and dirt of the road got to me.  Maybe it was the lure of reasonably cheap draught cider.  Not, of course, the fact that tropical islands are generally quite nice.  And obviously, cheering up people who are suffering through a Northern Hemisphere winter had nothing to do with it either.  But whatever it was, it turned out to be a decent day off.

After the torrents of rain a few days ago, the skies had finally cleared as I knocked off the final kilometres to Townsville in the now-familiar cocktail of sweat and sunscreen.  I’ve not seen much of the city, as I was racing the falling sun to the ferry.  Maybe I’ll have a chance to look around tomorrow on the way out.

Although it’s raining, yet again, as I write this, so who knows?

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Dusk was in full swing as the ferry landed.  Magnetic Island looked worryingly hilly as the boat approached.  And sure enough, the few kilometres across to Horseshoe Bay turned out to include the hardest climbing I’ve yet seen in Australia.  Which, to be fair, is not saying all that much, but it’s still a nasty shock to be grinding up a 20% gradient at the end of a long day.

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A gentle stroll around in daylight this morning (Saturday) revealed that the island was just as ugly as you might expect.  I grabbed a relaxed (and very tasty) beach-side breakfast with a nice Belgian couple, and then wandered back to the hostel for a little siesta.  I can’t take that much excitement without a bit of a rest afterwards…

But if I thought that breakfast was as exciting as this particular rest day was going to get, I was sorely mistaken.  To be fair, breakfast often is the most exciting thing that happens on my days off, so I think I can be excused the thought.

However, it crossed my mind that the koala sanctuary attached to the hostel might be worth a look.  What could be more chilled out than a gentle stroll around in some trees, trading soporific glances with harmless, fluffy grey animals?  What I hadn’t appreciated was that you have to fight your way past infinitely more terrifying creatures to get to the koalas.

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This is a saltwater crocodile.  They’re the ones which sometimes eat people in this part of the world.  Bundles of muscle, scales, teeth and general prehistoric nastiness.  Scary.

The only saving grace of this particular specimen was that it was only about eighteen inches (maybe 50 cm) long.  After bravely wrestling with it for a few minutes, it was on to the koalas:

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Much more relaxing.  And at least I’ve taken the pressure off my patchy wildlife-spotting skills.  Not that I’ve ever stood much of a chance of seeing koalas in the wild, mind you.

Meanwhile, Plan C is taking shape.  Darwin is definitely too far to reach in my remaining visa time (and I’ve had enough local advice about how dangerous the outback would be on a bike at this time of year, in any case).

So it looks like I’ve only got a few hundred more kilometres to ride in Australia.  I’ll head up to Cairns, and from there take a (probably fairly circuitous) set of flights to get me to Indonesia.  Nothing booked yet, but that should fall into place in the next couple of days.

The journey home begins in earnest soon…

Summertime in the Sunshine State

Back at home in the UK, there’s an ancient summer tradition of kids riding donkeys at the seaside.  That’s on the five days of the summer that it’s not raining, blowing a gale or freezing cold, obviously.  And on the couple of beaches from which animals are not banned in the name of health and safety.  It probably doesn’t happen quite as much as it once did.

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In Queensland, it’s a little different.  There’s a camel train which wanders along the (fairly tiny) Airlie Beach, and it looks like it’s there to stay for another generation, at least.  The little chap above was being trained (not especially effectively, it appeared) to follow the rest of his family around, in preparation for a lifetime of trudging about with apes on his back.  I suspect the Beast sympathises.

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The sunshine and heat lasted for another day before I had something else to moan about.  At sunset in Bowen on Tuesday, I could already see clouds building behind the palm trees.  And by the time I started rolling up the highway on Wednesday morning, it was to the accompaniment of dire predictions of thunderstorms, torrential rain, and even possible highway closures due to flooding.

This was a bit of a bummer, as I was hoping to get to Townsville (roughly 200km / 125 miles away) by this evening (Thursday).

It’s been known to rain in the UK in the summer, too, so I shrugged off the warnings, slapped on the factor fifty, and pootled off determinedly up the road.  By lunchtime, I’d begun to think that I might get away with it, and make it to my target destination of Home Hill before anything too dramatic happened.  Then I stopped for a nice cold drink at the tiny hamlet of Gumlu, and emerged to see this hurtling down the road towards me:

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Ouch.

Needless to say, the Queensland rain’s not quite the same as at home either.  I spent three hours cowering in Gumlu as wave after wave of clouds unloaded, along with a spectacular lightning show.

Just as I thought I’d be stuck there forever, the clouds parted.  Enough time to dash the remaining 40km?  It looked like it might be.  And it would be light just about long enough, too.  I shifted into time-trial mode, ignoring the protests from my legs, and floored it.

For about ten kilometres.

Then I got a flat tyre.  Only the fifth of the whole trip.  Just one every 39 days.  So why, oh why do I get one in the middle of nowhere when I’m trying to beat a gazillion litres of airborne water to the next shelter?

I’m still not sure whether the puncture did me a favour in the end.  I was still 15kms out of Home Hill when the rain began again.  Amazingly, the arrival of the heavy stuff coincided with me spotting the illuminated sign of the petrol station / hotel / campground at Inkerman.  In I dived, and was rewarded by their phenomenal ‘waifs and strays’ policy – a free worker’s cabin (rather dubiously known as a ‘donga’) for the night.  Lucky, lucky boy…

Today’s forecast was even worse that yesterday’s, so I didn’t really expect to make Townsville.  In fact, I only just scraped that elusive 15kms to Home Hill before cloudburst number one arrived at eight this morning.

I hung around (under shelter) in town for a couple of hours, but things didn’t improve a great deal:

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And so in Home Hill I remain.  As I write, the sixth cloudburst of the day is ongoing.  At home, one shower like that would clear the air for days.  Not here.

Things are forecast to be a little better tomorrow, so I might be able to scramble up to Townsville with just a few showers to dodge.  My optimism remains undimmed.  More likely, I’ll make it to the next town, Ayr, and get stranded again.

So, summer in Queensland.  Animal rides on the beach and changeable weather.  Sounds very much like an English summer on paper.

But it’s really, really, not the same at all.

Liquid Air: The Path to Plan C?

I’m not a huge fan of selfies.

I have a contract with my five-year-old nephew, Tom (Hi, Tom!), to provide him with a selfie from every country (or major part of a country) that I go to on this trip.  And that’s as far as I really want to go with them.

Except today.  I wanted to explain the Queensland humidity in words.  But I found that ‘damp’, ‘moist’, and even ‘swampy’, were not really cutting the mustard.  None of them get close to the experience of sweating through your shirt while sitting immobile in a chair.  At 7am.  Hopefully, this might help:

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Ignore the cheerful (if slightly awkward) grin.  More accurately, ignore the forced and painful smile.  It’s not my best picture, I know.  That’s not what this is about, though.

I’d been riding for 50 minutes, on an outrageously flat road, with a gentle tailwind.  In other words, I should hardly have broken sweat.  And no, it hadn’t rained.  Yet, as you may have noted, my top appears to have been doused by a particularly enthusiastic bunch of firefighters.  The sunscreen, which was perfectly absorbed into my skin just a few minutes before, has made a disturbing reappearance.  I’m not sure how much water there is in a human body, but pretty much all of mine had simply dived out through my pores, saturating everything in its path.  Lovely.

This is one effect of Queensland’s Liquid Air.  Another is that the air actually feels thicker than usual.  It’s not that is doesn’t provide any oxygen, it just feels like harder work than normal to drag it in and out of your lungs.  Combined with the inability to hold water inside the body, this makes the riding less than easy.  And that’s before the third aspect of the humidity hits.

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The air turns pretty readily (and very rapidly) into actual moisture.  Lots and lots of actual moisture.  The term in these parts is ‘showers’.  I think of them more as full-on monsoons.  They pop up at any time of day, leaving you (if you’re lucky) stranded under a tree or a petrol station canopy for a while, cutting your riding time.  And they hunt in packs, with unfeasibly heavy downpour following unfeasibly heavy downpour.  Sometimes for hours.

What I’m trying to say, with all this Liquid Air nonsense, is that progress has slowed alarmingly once again.

I had to have a couple of days’ rest at Mackay, partly due to a few beers with a Belgian card-sharp who I met in New Zealand, but mainly due to the humidity.  The Liquid Air effect really took hold there, and with the addition of sunshine, significant distances would have been difficult, if not actually dangerous.  I was better staying cool.

I’ve made it to Airlie Beach in two days from there, which is not terrible.  But, sadly, I missed the guy who’s walking around Australia in a Star Wars Stormtrooper costume.  If I’d been on the road a day earlier, I could have heard how his ‘armour’ saved him from a snakebite first-hand instead of on telly.  Grr…

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Airlie Beach is a tourist town, and, as the name may suggest, is on the coast.  I figured that there would be cool sea breezes here to ease the heat a little.  So far, I’ve been proved wrong, although it is (maybe) a degree or two cooler than inland, and a colossal black cloud floated over earlier, rather than discharging floods of rain on the town.

So maybe things are looking up.  The worry is that, with conditions like this, I won’t be able to make the distances I need to get across the outback to Darwin before my visa expires.  And these conditions are rolling straight out of the outback at present.  It may be that I’ll have to content myself with Cairns instead.  And maybe a day or two off to see the Great Barrier Reef.

Plan C, anyone?

Bad Day, Good Day. Same Day.

The Bruce Highway, which I’ve been bumbling up for hundreds of miles now, is quite possibly the dullest road in the world.  It’s so tedious that there are ‘amusing’ signs posted along the roadside to keep drivers awake.

I thought I was bored in the mid-west of the US, with its slow alternations of sweetcorn and soya beans.  And nothing else.  But the scenery along the highway here is pretty much entirely unchanging for thousands of kilometres.

Just a billion trees.  Seemingly endless bush.  And lots of trucks.

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But things started to change a little on Monday.

It was Day 183, which the mathematically gifted amongst you will note is half a year since I left London.  A day of great significance, then.  You would hope.

I left Marlborough resigned to another long day of heat and bush.  Ahead of me was the emptiest stretch of road I’ve encountered since my run across the Californian desert.  In fact, I’d been warned by locals that there was ‘nothing’ between Marlborough and my destination campsite at Clairview.

Actually, there were three man-made things (not counting the road and a couple of burned-out cars) in 66 miles.  Which is not much, I admit.  But it’s not quite ‘nothing’ either.  After tanking up early on at a petrol station, I was pretty happy that I’d make it to the large rest stop, about 30 miles up the road, with no bother.

The wind had other ideas, swinging around to face me, decreasing speed and increasing sweating and water consumption alarmingly.  I was a sorry mess when I got to the rest stop; time was ticking on, and I still had over 20 miles to go.  I was down to a couple of mouthfuls of water.  And there was nothing to drink at the rest stop.  Just one cafe (closed), and a nice toilet block with ‘non-potable’ signs on every tap.  Risk the undrinkable water, or maybe peg out from thirst?  Decisions, decisions…

This was a low point.  What an awful day!

As I sat moping in the shade, a car turned up with Anton and his family in it.  And things got rapidly better.  They were heading home after a holiday down south.  They had carried 10 litres of water (nicely chilled by the car air-con) there and back for no apparent reason, and I was welcome to as much as I liked.  And there’s a free shower, meal and bed awaiting me a bit north of Mackay, too!  More lovely people!  I trundled out of the rest stop in significantly better spirits.

It was getting close to sunset as I approached the campsite.  About five kms out, a head suddenly shot up out of the long grass by the side of the road, maybe 10 metres away.  The head was followed quickly by the rest of a startled grey kangaroo, which bounced off pretty rapidly into the fields.  I stopped, but it was long gone before I could get a picture.  Shame.  But as I scanned the field, I saw another three kangaroos.  From long range, admittedly, but that’s four wild kangaroos.  I arrived at the campsite with a big grin on my face.

This was a high point.  What a good day!  Amazing how quick things can change on the bike…

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Yesterday morning (Tuesday), I woke up by the seaside.  And the bush finally started to fade into sugar cane plantations as I headed north again.  There was time for one more (thankfully half-hearted) Aussie magpie attack, though without any physical contact this time.  And then I broke out into open farmland on the approach to Sarina.  Hooray!

So, six months and a little over 11000 km (or a little under 7000 miles) done.  And I’ve finally seen a kangaroo or two!  And after a few tough, hot days lately, I should be able to get closer to the ocean, and maybe to the Barrier Reef, as I head further up Queensland.

Hopefully.  Let’s not forget, there’s:

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Birdstrike

In a country where fast food restaurants and shops are signposted on billboards from over 100 kilometres away, you’d have thought that the Tropic of Capricorn would be marked with a rest stop, or maybe souvenir shop or a theme park, even.  Or at least that there would be an enormous sign.  Or a small sign.  Or a plaque.

There wasn’t.

At least, I didn’t see one.  And I was looking, but missed it while dodging traffic; the roads have got busy suddenly.  Turns out it was actually hidden behind some trees next to the information office on the edge of town.

So, as I zig-zagged past a delinquent camper-van door, and ducked back in to avoid being rear-ended by a road train (would have been painful), I entered The Tropics.  Quite what difference this makes to anything is slightly unclear to me, but there it is; another imaginary line on the globe crossed.  Given the lack of any official marker of the occasion, I took a picture of the first sign I saw with ‘Capricorn’ written on it as a memento:

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Hopefully, one thing that might change in the tropical zone is the bird life.  Before I left home, I’d read accounts of the senseless violence which Aussie magpies can inflict on the unwary touring cyclist.  But until Thursday, I’d just been buzzed a few times, with my avian tormentors contenting themselves with squawking disturbingly from a couple of feet above my head.

Thursday was different.  Maybe they’re getting more bloodthirsty as I head north.  Maybe I unwittingly provoked them by wearing the same socks too many days in a row (they did stink, to be fair).  Maybe the Beast was teasing them.  I just don’t know.

What I do know is that, for the first time ever, a cycling helmet actually protected me from something, rather than just making my head sweat.

The usual squawking and fluttering of nearby wings was abruptly replaced by a scrabbling noise as the magpie landed on my head (which was moving at well over 20 kph – that’s impressive flying).  By the time I got a panicked hand near enough to make the winged assailant let go, it had gone at the helmet like a demented woodpecker:

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It was trying to kill me.  No doubt about it.  And the helmet took one for the team, and saved me a damaged scalp.  It’s still pretty much useless if a truck hits you.  And it still makes my head too hot, risking heatstroke.  But it’s very useful against magpies, that’s for sure.

Aside from running the magpie gauntlet, things have been going well since Bundaberg.  300 kms were knocked off easily in three days, thanks to fewer showers and a lovely strong tailwind.  So I’m having a day off in Rockhampton today.  I’m not even moaning about the heat any more, though I’m quite sure that will change again.

And I met another tourer for the first time since New South Wales, just before the magpies.  Damian’s heading down most of the Queensland coast to Brisbane.  On a bike that cost him AU$85 in a sale, and a set of panniers home-made from shopping bags and milk crates, by the look of them.  Good stuff!

It was already getting dark by the time I’d settled into the hostel last night (Friday).  So I didn’t see much of town.  I had a wander around this morning, but it seems to be more functional than especially interesting.  But I do know that they’re inordinately proud of their cattle here, and the beef’s supposed to be pretty good.  It’s also the first place I’ve been with plastic ‘rent-a-bulls’ displayed on top of offices in the city centre:

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Anyway, I’m relaxing today before pushing further into tropical Australia.  Lots of big gaps are appearing between towns, meaning I’m having to plan a bit more carefully, and carrying extra kilos of water again.  Mackay is the next large place, and I should get there mid-week.  Providing the magpies don’t get their revenge in the meantime, of course…

Bundaberg

First, an extremely belated ‘Happy New Year’ to all.  This is actually the third post I’ve written this year, but I seem to be particularly prone to technical gremlins in 2015, so it’s the first one to make it up the pipe to the internet.  Hope that improves as the year goes on…

Now.  On to a slow-moving tale of sweat, rain, witches and cartoon statues.  Pretty much business as usual, then.

You may remember (it was a while ago) that I got stuck in Brisbane for longer than planned due to the weather.  That’s the trouble with heading towards the tropics during the wet season.  It rains a bit, and the rain can be quite heavy (for those from outside the UK, that’s a fair example of British understatement).  And when it’s not raining, the sun comes out, making it phenomenally swampy when combined with 70-plus percent humidity.

New Year’s Eve found me on the receiving end of the heat and humidity, which had been building ever since Brisbane.  I scraped into Maryborough, gasping for refreshment and looking forward to welcoming in the New Year.  About an hour later, there was a light shower:

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The storm took out the electricity to the whole town, as well as others up to 20 miles away.  For about four hours.  It took its toll on the NYE celebrations too, as it becomes incredibly difficult to buy anything when the cash registers don’t work.

I’ve been running very slowly, dodging perpetual showers ever since I left Maryborough.  Having ducked and dived a few paltry kilometres further north, I’ve been stranded in Bundaberg for the last couple of days.  But I have high expectations of escape tomorrow (Wednesday).  The fact that I’m still here is down partly to the consistent streams of drenching showers rushing in off the ocean.  And partly down to the witches.

I thought they were witches the first time I clapped eyes on them: three local old crones cackling around steaming cups of coffee.  All very Macbeth (though I think that was on a blasted heath, rather than on Bundaberg’s main street).  But then, they seemed so nice when I started talking to them, and I quickly concluded that they must just be very noisy old ladies.

I’d already packed up the Beast, and was ready to roll this morning, but had been temporarily halted by yet anther monstrous shower.  The witches saw the bike, and pointed out that there were inky black clouds and columns of rain as far as the eye could see.  Then they brainwashed me into staying another night, as it was bound to rain all day.  Needless to say, it dried up by about eleven, and was bright and breezy until dark.  I assume they enchanted the elements to wind me up.

The moral of the story is that you should probably get weather advice from the local weatherman  (‘showers clearing later’), rather than a bunch of random octogenarian sorceresses.

They did suggest the (tiny, but free) local zoo as a distraction, though.  So I got to see a sleeping dog in a cage:

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Bundaberg’s charms don’t end with sleepy dingos, though.  It’s sugar cane country around here, and something has to be done with all that sweet stuff.  The city is famous for rum and ginger beer (both separately and mixed into a refreshing cocktail).  The rum is really nice, but I’ve been addicted to Bundy ginger beer for a long time, and it’s likely to remain my rehydration solution of choice, as long as I can find it in shops.

Sugary treats aside, Bundaberg should also be famous as the birthplace of Bert Hinkler.  I must confess that I’d never heard of Bert before arriving in town.  But after seeing everything from shopping centres to streets named after him, I looked him up.  It’s no wonder the town is so proud of the first person to fly solo from the UK to Australia (as well as making several other long flights, fighting in WW1, and piloting a plane in the inter-war Schneider Trophy seaplane races).  Which makes it all the more surprising that Bert’s statue looks like a cartoon man.  With a giant chin:

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Much though I’d like to spend a few days pondering the possible links between Bundy rum and the city’s intriguing artistic rendering of its favourite son, I really need to move on.  I’m running behind, and need to push on up the coast towards Rockhampton, and before that, the Tropic of Capricorn.

Providing the witches haven’t spooked the weather, it shouldn’t take too long.  And I’ll try to get the next update in a little quicker…