After living and studying in South East Queensland for a few years it was time to leave behind everything that couldn’t be carried on a mountain bike and ride off into the sunset… destination unknown.
The year was 1988. Brisbane was pumping with the long awaited World Expo in full swing at Southbank. You’d reckon I would’ve wanted to stick around for the six month long party but it didn’t seem to matter. Nor that I only had several weeks left to complete my teaching degree. It was time to make fat tyred tracks!
I gathered what I thought were the bare necessities for wherever it was I was heading, including:
- an ultra lite 1 man tent
- a multi fuel cooker
- thermals, rain and wind shells
- a sleeping bag
- a few bike spares
- water bottles
- a camera
The remainder of my worldly possessions were unceremoniously palmed off onto whoever would take them. Less stuff felt good.
Cycling had always been my primary way of getting around so there were no short test trips. My MTB, an Apollo Everest, was running pretty sweetly, and I figured there’d be plenty of time to learn whatever else I needed to know once I’d set off.
Departure day arrived. Cycling out of the city the extent of the unknown was intoxicating. With no internet back then to research your adventure to death beforehand and no mobile phones either, you were out there in the unknown, alone. Adventure was all the better for it IMO.
I wanted to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city ASAP so headed north before leaving the highway and turning west toward the Great Dividing Range, a mountain range that stretches 3,500 km along the entire length of Australia’s east coast. Like an old friend, our paths would cross numerous times in the coming months.
Most if not all people who have adventured off by themselves for prolonged periods with minimal belongings know first hand that the internal and external journey are deeply entwined, or more likely are one and the same. Nothing is spared as the depth and breadth of the experience unfolds. Who you who are, why you are, how you are, where you are — it’s all up for grabs. Progressively the layers built up over the years fall away, tugged at by waves of elation, bitter darkness, insanity, brutal pragmatism, despair, joy and peace, teased by the HTFU days when you’re physically and mentally beaten either by your own doing or the elements. What’s left is undoubtedly raw but enlivening.
Some days I’d ride all day, other days not at all, mostly anything in between. Distance covered each day varied widely too, from zero to over 200km. There was usually no pressing reason to reach anywhere so it had more to do with the groove of the day — a combination of body, terrain and elements. I remember riding all day along an epic straight stretch in the Northern Territory with a howling tailwind, floating above the road, no effort required, balanced out by the many days of blustering head and crosswinds. Regardless, each day ran to the rhythm of the rising and setting sun.
I didn’t know much at all about Carnarvon Gorge but felt drawn there so continued west into Queensland before heading north to Carnarvon. Easy to understand once you are there as it’s an incredible ancient oasis in the middle of nowhere. I spent a few days there, including nights camped up on Boolimba Bluff, and in the Amphitheatre.
While in the colder, wet weather of the south I initially used a second flysheet and the bike to create a sheltered dry area to cook in etc. While it helped keep the tent dry (which made it much easier to pack up on early frosty mornings) it didn’t take long before it became an another discarded unnecessary layer.
The second flysheet did make for a handy foyer though in which to welcome furry guests – kangaroos and even dingoes!
As much as I appreciated stocking up on supplies when passing through towns it didn’t take long to feel completely disconnected from that way of living. Often I simply had nothing to say. I remember sitting and watching carnival lights at Blackwater and feeling like I’d landed on another planet.
From Carnarvon I headed towards the Queensland coast and then north to stop in and visit my folks and younger brother in the Burdekin district before continuing on. I was on my own path, sometimes literally!
Those were the days before helmets. Wearing a hat made a lot more sense anyway. Here’s the very same hat more than 20 years later, barely held together but full of memories. I still loathe wearing helmets.
I continued north stopping at idyllic spots such as Mission Beach. We’d often go there for family holidays as kids. The prevailing South Easterly wind pushed me further up the coast, to Cairns and then onto Cooktown.
I slipped and slid through a very wet and muddy Daintree Rainforest and at Cape Tribulation came across a bunch of tourists in one of those large 4WD tour buses.
How different must the experience be, sitting inside one of those luxurious air conditioned glass and steel boxes compared to being out in the elements, propelled by your own body power. I know which one I’d rather!
I met another MTB guy in Cooktown, a crazy scientist looking guy called Tim. I can’t remember much of his story but he was riding an Apollo Everest too, also yellow, funny!
It was in Cooktown for whatever reason the decision was made to continue on up Cape York Peninsula via the old and mostly unused telegraph route. I left Brisbane with what I thought were the bare necessities but I dumped a bunch of stuff at Cooktown. There was no point having and carrying anything that wasn’t of day to day use.
With all the riding my arse had turned to toughened leather long ago. There was no need for cycling knicks, they were nothing but another layer, and a PITA layer at that. Clothing for Cape York was one navy blue singlet, one t-shirt from Cooktown, one pair of shorts, and THE hat. Ample.
Cape York Peninsula is still regarded as one of the last great wild places on earth. No doubt at the time I found it to be extremely wild, untamed and aside from mining and native settlements virtually empty. The terrain is rugged too as the Great Dividing Range continues up the length of the narrowing peninsula to the northern tip. I wonder what it’s like today, +20 years later. Hopefully the endless stream of 4WD’s and military training exercises haven’t messed things up completely.
There’s also no shortage of creek and river crossings and no shortage of both fresh and salt water crocodiles on Cape York. In fact there’s no shortage of wild and woolly stuff full stop. Most things are on a scale that put your life into perspective, even ant nests.
The Cape back then was a frontier kind of place, lifetimes away from east coast urban living. I met some classic characters along the way, like these wild pig hunters fixing their old land rover. If something moves, they shoot it.
No need for luxuries like soap and unnecessary daily rituals like showering. When I came across water, usually in the form of idyllic rock pools, I had a swim, in the process washing myself and clothes at the same time.
Towards the top of Cape York I could’ve left the telegraph route, rejoined the 4WD’ers and crossed the Jardine River on a barge but for whatever reason I opted to wade across the broad, murky and relatively shallow river best known for its hungry crocodiles. Looking back it seems like it was a crazy risk to take. No wonder I needed a cuppa afterwards, to contemplate my stupidity 😛
I remember being unwell and delirious at Seisia Bay, putting up the tent shell before passing out on the ground nearby, where I stayed until I woke up in the middle of the night.
Yep that is what the northern most point of Australia looks like, well it did back then anyway. A 44 gallon drum full of concrete with a sign post stuck in it. Check out other people’s pics – it’s a popular place for a photo! 🙂
And just in case I was too delirious to realize…
By this stage I guess I was a fairly gruff and grubby character who really didn’t speak much at all, bordering on being lost in my own wilderness. If so that wasn’t such a bad outcome. I came across a crazy Eurooean tourist girl living on a remote beach at the Cape who was like some kind of mute, insect ravaged rabid animal! She was scary crazy. I gave her some food. For whatever reason, probably water, I ended up becoming quite sick and decided to fly back to Cairns on a small freight carrying prop plane Buddy Holly style.
I rested in Cairns for a while before heading west, into the Gulf Country. I remember passing out again, this time while climbing the range out of Cairns. There was a lot of traffic but as far as I can recall anyway, no-one stopped to help. I came to lying on the ground, looking at the road and cars passing by… sideways. No biggie as I was on a mission, drawn towards the Gulflander, an old train service that ran between two Gulf towns in the middle of nowhere – Normanton and Croydon. Before that though I had to cross the Great Dividing Range for the Nth time. It’s always amazing how instantly and dramatically the landscape changes along the edge of the range – on the east side, it’s lush green and wet, on the west side it’s rocky, harsh and dry. It literally is a great divide.
I even got to ‘drive’ the Gulflander for while, with passengers and all — crazy, cool! 🙂
Somewhere in the gulf country I ran out of water. It’s amazing how thirsty you get the moment you realize there is no water left and you’re a long way from anywhere. I headed to the closest 4WD track, sat and waited. Not much else to do really. Eventually a four wheel drive tourist bus came along and I got some water.
I met an old German guy at Camooweal, Ernst was his name from memory, cycling around Australia in the other direction. Like Tim in Cooktown he too was riding a yellow Apollo Everest, same as mine. These were the only two other MTB riders I came across. Synchronicity is a bitch hey!
After crossing into the Northern Territory I reached the Three Ways, a T intersection and roadhouse where the Barkly and Stuart Highways meet (If you want to hear some classic ‘true blue’ Australiana muzak visit the Three Ways Roadhouse web site).
From the Three Ways you can either go north to Darwin or south to Alice Springs then onto Uluru, the red heart of Australia. Like Carnarvon the centre was calling. I chose to go south, exploring the mighty Western MacDonnell Ranges along the way (the water in Glen Helen gorge was FREEZING!) eventually arriving at Uluru (Ayers Rock).
I met a couple of ex bikies at Glen Helen who now rode trikes due to injuries. When Rock (the bigger guy) wanted to take a piss he turned a tap and it ran out of a pipe beside his boot. They were going for a joy flight over the MacDonnell Ranges in a mustering chopper and had a spare seat so invited me along. Great fun, and from the air the ranges look like giant ancient snakes lying across the arid terrain.
The centre of Australia is an incredible place. I ended up living in Yulara for a year with Uluru framed by my kitchen window.
After being lost in my own wilderness — which was a life changing, hugely enriching experience — I doubt there could have been a better place to reinsert myself back into The Matrix of modern life than the centre of Australia. If you’ve never stood on a desert dune and let a Summer storm tear through your body I thoroughly recommend it.
What happened from there, I guess that’s another story, another lifetime…