new south wales

The Big Shrimp and the Tequila Prophet

I may have been a little harsh on New South Wales, I think.

Despite my previous comments on the tedium of some of the roads in NSW, I did, at least, acknowledge that the towns and the coast were pretty.  I crossed the border into Queensland this afternoon.  Within a couple of hours, I’d experienced three near misses with woefully driven vehicles (one of them a bus, which really should know better).  And I’d ridden through most of Gold Coast, including the immensely over-developed tower blocks of Surfers’ Paradise.  In short, I was missing NSW in no time.  But at least I can’t call the roads boring any more…

It’s been a fairly eventful few days.  Yesterday, I was at Australia’s most eastern point (well, a few hundred metres away, to be the star pedant that I always hoped to be).  Byron Bay was rammed to bursting point with incoming backpackers, Aussie tourists and its own stock of hippies, all preparing diligently for the onrushing festive frenzy.  I still can’t get my head round the fact that Christmas is right around the corner.  Bah, Humbug!

Before I got to Byron, I covered another chunk of coast, and was privileged enough to see a significant cultural icon on Sunday; the Big Shrimp of Ballina.

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Big Things are a bit of an Aussie tradition.  There are a lot of them all over the country.  I’ve already pretty much missed the Big Banana, because it wasn’t as big as I expected.  I just caught it out of the corner of my eye as I whistled past on the highway a few days ago.

But there was no missing the Shrimp.  Bright orange, shrimp-shaped, and three storeys tall.  It really is a very impressive prawn.  Though why it’s in the car park of an out-of-town store is anybody’s guess.

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After the Big Shrimp, I was pretty close to the top of New South Wales.  Lennox Head (above) is only 20km south of Byron Bay.  It only took me an hour to ride between them yesterday morning (Monday).  But it’s an entirely different world in terms of tourism.  I realise it was getting dark, but it took me several minutes to get a picture of the beach with anyone at all on it.

It was a peaceful stopover, spoiled only by an initially-interesting Australian with a cod-Texan accent (he said it was his ‘authentic inner voice’).  He turned out to be an ex-member of some sort of cult spin-off type group, and a self-proclaimed prophet.  For what or whom wasn’t entirely clear.  Just add tequila to some people, and the strangest things can happen…

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So, New South Wales got interesting just as I was about to leave.  We’ll see how Queensland shapes up.

I’ve got three nights in Brisbane over Christmas, and I guess it’s fairly unlikely I’ll update the blog again until Boxing Day or so.  So I hope you all have a great Christmas, and I’ll be back with more from the Beast and me soon.

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Christmas Decorations

I’m experiencing Southern Hemisphere Christmas Weirdness.  I think it’s probably the same for everyone from the northern hemisphere.  You see fat men in red costumes sweating about town in over 30 degrees C.  And watch people spraying fake snow and hanging decorations while you’re busy with your second application of sunscreen, and worrying whether that’ll be enough.  I guess, if you’re here regularly, you get used to it.  Or if you live here, of course.  But it produces an odd sense of dislocation for me.  And most of the European travellers I’ve met don’t feel ‘Christmassy’ at all, either.

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Personally, I’m feeling more American Mid-West in August.  Despite having the Pacific coast fairly close to the road for the last few days, the heat and humidity are increasing steadily as I plough on north towards Queensland.  I’m having to adjust from the relative cold of New Zealand and the pleasant riding temperatures further south around Sydney.  My need for liquid while riding has more than doubled in the last couple of days, and the more health-conscious Aussies don’t sell massive buckets of soda for next-to-nothing like the Americans do.  Some adjustment is required.

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They like decorating things over here, and not just for the festive season.  I stopped at Port Macquarie (still trying to remember that it’s pronounced ‘McQuarry’, for some reason; thankfully, most locals just call it ‘Port’, which is much easier) a few nights ago, and found that the town had developed a plague of painted koalas.  I was quite excited, as these were the first wild koalas I’d seen.  Hopefully, it’s a sign that my woeful luck with wildlife is on the turn.

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There also seems to be a developing tradition of painting rocks on breakwaters at harbours.  These were at ‘Port’, again, but there are examples at Coffs Harbour (apostrophe not included, apparently), where I am currently residing, too.  I suspect that they may turn out to be everywhere.

I’ve been making mixed progress up the coast.  One day, the humidity will take its toll, and I’ll be struggling to make 40 miles.  The next, there will be a tailwind (and maybe I’ll be better prepared for the heat), and I’ll be doing 75 miles fairly effortlessly.  It seems to be a bit of a lottery, though at least the weather forecasts are much more reliable here than in NZ.  And there are more painted decorations to look at along the road; some good advice here on where not to buy your next truck.  It must take a massive grievance to go to this much effort…

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In any case, I officially became a long-distance cyclist on Tuesday, as I pushed through the 6000-mile mark for the trip, just south of Kempsey.  You might (if you’ve been putting up with reading the blog since then) remember that I met Tim and Laura Moss in California, just before I hit the Pacific.  They were just starting a US coast-to-coast as the last leg of their round-the-world ride, and were aiming to be home in the UK by Christmas.  They also run a database of long-distance riders, which you’re not allowed to enter until you hit the magic 6000-mile mark.  So I can now get in!  And Tim’s a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, which makes it as official as can be…

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I’m resting up in Coffs Harbour today, getting ready to push on north.  I’ll have a proper look round today (Thursday), as I’ve only seen a couple of cafes and a dead fairground so far.  I’m also vaguely thinking about where I’ll actually be for Christmas; if the miles keep ticking by as they are, I’ll probably be somewhere on the Sunshine Coast, just north of Brisbane.

Maybe I’ll just go for the town with the most remarkable decorations.  Or maybe the town with the least.  Maybe Brisbane itself wouldn’t be a bad idea, as a big city with plenty going on.  Or maybe I want somewhere quiet, so I can sit by a pool and be bemused by the Christmas heat in private.  Decisions, decisions…

Not a Ferry Good Birthday*, and Eating Australia

*Actually, it was fine, but I needed to use the awful pun somewhere…

I never thought there could be a downside to a strong tailwind, but there can.  I never thought that riding through a National Park in the sunshine would be anything other than idyllic, but it was.

My birthday (Friday) began well, as I woke up to a strong southerly wind, which would shove me effortlessly up the coast from Newcastle.  And it did.  For a while.

I was so chuffed with the tailwind that I decided to push on from my (extremely unambitious) target for the day.  I’d initially decided to give myself a super short day as a birthday present.  But I’ve learned never to waste a tailwind, especially a gale-force one, so I sailed gleefully onwards, to catch the ferry from Nelson Bay.

I got to Nelson Bay with twenty minutes to spare before the ferry.  And it was only lunchtime.  I’d be able to make ground at a superb rate.  Perfect.

The ferry was cancelled, due to my tailwind.  In fact, all the ferries that day were cancelled due to my tailwind.  Not so perfect.

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Still, the town was fairly large, and touristy, with a lot of yachts.  By dinner time, there was a throng of brightly (some might say less-than-tastefully) dressed tourists bouncing around.  Looked like it should be a decent evening for a couple of beers to celebrate being another year older.

They disappeared.  Nearly all of them.  Vanished.

The maximum number of other people in the pub was seven.  In the middle of town.  On a Friday night.  What manner of madness is this?

On the bright side, a gentle birthday evening meant that I didn’t need to use my ‘Emergency Hangover Day Off’, which I’ve been carefully holding in reserve (think it may still come in handy for Christmas or New Year, mind you).  On Saturday morning I was raring to go.  And the ferries were running.  Onwards!

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While the ferry rolled its way across to Tea Gardens, we kept a sharp look-out for dolphins.  Apparently, the bay’s residential pod means that they are spotted on 95% of trips.  Given my wildlife history thus far, I’m sure you won’t be super-surprised to learn that the nearest thing to dolphins we spotted was a bunch of kids in speedboats.  Still, dolphins are not the highest on my wildlife-spotting list.  I can live with the disappointment, as long as I can see a kangaroo at some point.  Or even a wallaby.

After leaving the ferry, eating a massive pie, and heading north again, I met Bruce and Marg. They are in the relatively early stages of riding around the edge of Australia, pausing only to climb the highest peak in each state.  They gave me some very useful advice on surviving the outback, having just done a chunk, and also provided me with a useful shortcut through the bush, which would save me time, save me climbing, and provide the Beast with a little off-road action.

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It was a track.  Not good enough to count as a dirt road, and closed to vehicles, but easy enough for the Beast to deal with.  I even heard some panicked crashing in the undergrowth, which I took to be kangaroos legging it from my rattling, crashing, and altogether not very subtle approach.  Didn’t see any, obviously.  But I was getting closer, and decided that dirt roads are something I needed more of.

Today (Sunday), after a night in the pleasant, but again, surprisingly empty, town of Forster, I resumed my northward progress.  I thought I might just be able to make Port Macquarie today, as there was a fair chunk of fast but dull highway involved.

Then I got distracted.  There was a dirt road through Crowdy Bay National Park, which would take me to Laurieton, just a short hop from ‘Port’.  Another 25km of quiet, pleasant meandering for the Beast, and another chance to nail that elusive first marsupial.

Or, as it turned out, a chance to get a real taste of Australia.

It tastes gritty, and slightly metallic.

A lesson learned about dirt roads.  If they have cars on them, you’re going to ingest the countryside as well as see it.  Cycling has a real knack of bringing you closer to the environment through which you travel…

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To round things off, the hostel which the internet had advertised in Laurieton doesn’t exist.  There is some debate locally about whether it ever did.  It is, however, a thoroughly agreeable town with a lovely harbour.  And a paragliding school who were kind enough to take me in for a small fee.

As I try to wash the flavours of Australia from my mouth with lashings of ginger beer, I think it’s fair to say that I won’t be rushing back to the dirt roads.  Anyway, I have a hot tip that golf courses are the way to go if you want to see kangaroos.

I’ll let you know how that works out…

Impressions of Oz; the First Few Miles

It took only a short ride through Sydney to work out that I’m not in New Zealand anymore.  The volume of traffic was a clue; I think I’ve seen more cars in the last three days than in the whole six weeks in NZ.  Also, someone had built a fairly famous bridge and opera house in the middle of town.  There may well be bridges and opera houses which are famous in NZ, but probably not in this league.

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But the real giveaway was the cyclist I met while taking hero pictures of the Beast, which was quite pleased with itself after cruising across Sydney Harbour Bridge.  Where Kiwis just tended to ask where I was going, and commiserated about the weather, this guy really gave me the inside track on Australia.

Depending on how it goes, I’m going to die of thirst in the outback, get hit by a road-train (or just a truck with an amphetamine-crazed driver), be attacked by spiders, snakes and crocodiles (possibly all at once, by the sound of it), or be abducted and murdered by one or more of the myriad desert weirdos who haunt the Northern Territory.  This was all imparted to me in a slightly hysterical voice, and with the earnestness of a man who clearly believed I was entirely nuts to be even considering riding to Darwin.

I’m still not sure whether he was trying to wind me up, or whether he actually believed all this, erm, stuff.  I’ve checked with a couple of other (saner-seeming) Aussies, one of whom thankfully came along immediately afterwards.  The general consensus seems to be that he was probably being serious, but was clearly an institutionalised townie, and not a Proper Aussie Bloke.  The general consensus also seems to be that I’d be very unlucky to have more than one of these disasters befall me.  Which, of course, is a massive relief.  I think.

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The most dangerous wildlife I’ve seen so far were some giant pelicans, which were parked up by the side of the road between Swansea and Newcastle.  OK, OK.  By a lake near the road.  They didn’t seem especially interested in attacking me, so I’m taking a fairly relaxed view of Australian dangerous creatures so far.  And, much though I hate to admit it, Aussie drivers seem to be less spooked by bikes, and keener to give cyclists space than in NZ, so I’m not over-worried about the traffic either.

There are still a few concerns, mainly to do with time.  I’ve only got three months to get to Darwin before my visa expires (when did Brits suddenly start needing visas anyway?).  And Australia is enormous.  Sydney to Darwin is a significantly longer ride than Toronto to San Diego, which took me just over two months.

The weather may play a role in slowing me down, too.  I’m back in the all-too-familiar hostel window / rain scenario again today (Thursday), stuck in Newcastle.  Too many rain days (and I’m very much in storm season at the moment) would quickly push me behind schedule, but there are worse places to be stuck, I suppose.

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I’m also likely to lose a bit of time in the next few weeks, with my birthday, Christmas and New Year to fit in.  Any (or more likely, all) of these will probably cause a fairly slow start to the riding here to turn into a very slow start.  So there will be some time to catch up somewhere along the way.

It might be raining today, but it’s not cold like it was in NZ, which is a big plus.  But the heat will build as I head north towards the tropics, and may cause problems in the outback.  I’ve spoken to a few people (not of the hysterical persuasion), who say that it’s a tough ask on a bike.  Although I’ve also now met four bikers who have ridden it (albeit in the opposite direction), so it clearly can be done.

So.  Australia.  Well, so far, it’s big, and not especially dangerous.  It has fish and chips, pies and cake.  It has decent drivers.  And it has lots of pretty spots along the coastline.

How long it will remain so benign, I don’t know.  How long it will be before I’m flapping about time and / or the weather also remains to be seen.  And how many of the many potential catastrophes outlined above will actually happen is yet another unknown.

I’m looking forward to finding out.

Except for the catastrophes.

What a bummer if he’s right…