townsville

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…

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.