Australian reflections

Having left Brisbane at the beginning of March we finally cycled into Adelaide on the 15th May. Riding via Sydney and Melbourne we’ve covered a total of 3291km here in Australia and this has been the country we have spent the longest time in. While we have had a good time overall and our trip to Uluru remains an absolute tour highlight ( thank goodness we decided to go in the end), this has still been our least favourite place to ride.

While there is always debate between drivers and cyclists Australia seems to have the most antagonistic relationship we have witnessed yet, though, as we rode inland from Sydney the attitude vastly improved. The other challenge however, with riding here is distance. As we planned our journey we needed to take into account distance between accommodation and of course determine water and food requirements. We don’t tend to wild camp and while outback scenes seem like what riding through Australia should really feel like, we simply could not take enough food and water to make the best of such routes.

I’ve already noted how I miss history and, while I love the food adventures that often come with travel, here, cheap meals are usually chip based, and chicken schnitzel definitely seem to be order of the day when pubs describe Australian tucker!

Despite this, riding the great ocean road was fabulous and if advising others on riding here this surely is a must do. Since we’ve packed away the bikes we booked tours to Kangaroo Island and up to the Flinders and KI would certainly be good to explore slowly on a bike. I expect Tasmania would be a good place to ride and while I’m not sure about the cycling possibilities I would love to explore the Kimberly area.

We met some great people while in Australia – old and new friends – and while it has not been my favourite place to ride this does not mean we had a bad time. We didn’t. I guess I just struggled at times in what felt like quite a macho culture and sadly one which itself struggles with integration with the Aboriginal community. I hope that if I make it back this may feel different in future years.

Iconic rides

When first considering routes around Australia I looked at a number of possibilities though one road I was always planning to ride was The Great Ocean Road. In touring terms a real must do. Having started in Brisbane this would come towards the end of our time here, in the final stage as we head round from Melbourne to Adelaide.

In the past week or so we have seen a real change in the weather here. Leg and arm warmers have been pulled from the bottom of the panniers and I’ve even been filling my hot water bottle at night. Eventually we decided to book up cheap accommodation. Getting out of a warm sleeping bag to the cold outdoors in the morning was just becoming too much and given the heavy rain of the past few days this it seems was a very wise decision. The travel brochures of course always show the Great Ocean Road in glorious sunshine. Fortunately, despite numb toes, the days when water seemed to pour from buckets in the sky we had rest days planned and our days on the most stunning section of the route were dry so we we’re able to stop, take pictures and take a peak at the various viewpoints along the way.

We followed the sea line out from Melbourne, taking the ferry between Sorrento and Queenscliff we would soon be on undulating, winding roads heading through Lorne and Apollo Bay, stopping to watch crashing waves, heading inland and up to Lavers Hill before reaching the most photographed areas of the Twelve Apostles and the rocky craggs of the shipwreck coast. It really was beautiful and would continue to be out past Port Campbell, through to Port Fairy.

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So far on our tour we’ve ridden through fabulous seaside areas including Oregon, South Africa, Italy and Thailand and The Great Ocean Road has certainly been added to this list of one of the best coastal routes. There really is good reason why this is an Australian must do. Far too often we look for trips, routes and journeys that may be considered the road less travelled. Sometimes it seems there is however a good reason why some places see thousands of visitors.

The weather. A very British blog.

Cold. Grey. Very soggy. Yep, that pretty much describes our ride out of Melbourne today.

We were really looking forward to riding the coastline out from the city. Melbourne has around 900km of bike tracks and we were able to follow the ocean in our own wee bike lane for the first 35km. However, we woke to hear rain pounding on the roof and it was all I could do to delay…playing on my Garmin maps (still unsuccessful), two coffees, last minute internet. The downpour continued. We were going to get wet.

Just after setting off we had a short boat ride. It was like Winter back home as we crossed the water. Rain poured and the wind was sharp. I was actually jealous of the cyclist on the ferry heading to nice warm office.

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It’s not the first time however that the weather has not quite been as expected. Despite considering weather charts it seems misconception, naivety, stereotypes and holiday brochure marketing all override my research. Add to this changing weather patterns that seem to be occurring with increased frequency and it’s no wonder we’re taken by surprise.

Africa and Australia it seems are not always hot. Japan still holds the record for sticky, muggy and humid and New Zealand wins for wind. At least when riding in Scotland I really do expect to see all four seasons in one day.Sometimes of course a change can also work to ones advantage. On this trip we’ve seen double rainbows at Uluru and waterfalls as we left Milford Sound. If only we’d seen a change today. Unfortunately the only difference we found was between lighter drizzle or drenching torrents. Oh well…..room please.

The weather is often one of the common stats I choose to record. We Brits are, afterall known for our obsession with meteorology and in continuing the stereotype…..our love of tea. It seems, regardless of whether it’s sunshine or rain I do still love a cuppa. Here’s hoping for a dry day tomorrow.

Something’s missing.

When asked what I miss about home, aside from friends and family, my usual response has been to reply real ale and salt and vinegar crisps. For this trip however the answer has changed. While the range of real ale, or craft beer as it is known here, is not as broad as the choice back home, salt and vinegar crisps are everywhere. In fact, this has been the case in both New Zealand and Australia. What has been missing however has, for me, been much more significant.

As we travelled through New Zealand and are continuing through Australia we read up and try to discover what the various towns we pass through have to offer. Many of the towns seem very similar – at least in architectural terms – with decorated concrete facades, an occasional clock tower and fairly low rise. Of course, there are exceptions, usually in the bigger cities.

The fact that these countries were late for habitation means buildings, key dates and local information all generally fall around 1860 – ten years after my flat was built in my home town of Edinburgh. Asked what I miss of home….the reply was history. It’s amazing just how much we can take this for granted.

While as someone interested in self build and who enjoys admiring modern design, I miss the mix of housing styles. I miss temples, old churches and cathedrals, palaces, forts and other buildings that give each town it’s own identity. I also miss the multi-culturalism of the UK.

I have to confess we didn’t do much of the Mauri activity on offer in New Zealand and to date have been only to Uluru, Ayers Rock, to consider the Aboriginal influence of Australia but this last trip blew me away.

During our bus ride out to Kings Canyon (no…we didn’t bring the bikes to Australia’s red centre) we were shown a video outlining prehistoric wildlife and landscapes here. It was amazing to watch. In Uluru, we learnt much more of the Anangu people with a walk around the base of the rock by Cassidy Uluru. His family led on negotiations for title deeds for this land to be handed back to the traditional landowners. Despite this history going back for around 50, 000 years the national park at Uluru was only handed back in 1985.

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While, much like in parts of Africa, this is not history that has affected skylines and build but this oral tradition is very much that thing which sets a country apart. For me, what makes Australia so distinct is seeing how what we would call primitive living exists alongside a much more advanced Western culture. The relationship between these two can certainly be tense. The desire to develop while maintaining tradition – the frustration of supporting something which is hesitant to change. There are no easy answers and we see similar discussion both at home and throughout the rest of the world.

I will still miss the architecture but the history is most definitely here. Perhaps the key thing missing is it’s integration?

Backpackers and nosepickers

We”re currently staying in a backpackers in Katoomba. While we both perhaps feel a wee bit old and not so into the socialising aspect of backpacker travel, overall, the place is okay. Clean, friendly and reasonably functional. I’m pleased. After our last experience in Newcastle we vowed it would be our last….but we had already booked this one before deciding our preference was for camping with the grey nomads.

We had been looking forward to our day off in Newcastle. Things to see, time to relax and proper beds. With access to cooking and laundry facilities this often makes the backpackers a reasonable option here given cabins at campsites in Australia are much more expensive. We arrived around 12pm and it was not too bad…the two young girls on reception were very helpful, the room was fine, the pool area seemed pleasant and we could even take our bikes indoors. Posters clearly displayed “no drinking after 9pm” and one of the other guests actually spoke to us….something we have found rarely among the much younger brigade.

There was another chap at reception checking in a small group of guys and this I believe was the root of the trouble that followed. The pool area became busy, the music volume kept increasing, empty beer crate was soon filling and the ashtrays overflowed. By late afternoon the lounge area was full as people drank, slept  and generally did nothing. We went out.

On arriving back from dinner – a reasonable curry house close by -  we made a hasty retreat to our room. While fine at first even I couldn’t sleep through the 3.30am party and the 6am noise as folk finally trundeled or were dragged across the hallway to bed. So much for a good nights sleep.

We woke the following morning to find a young guy sleeping on the sofa in the hallway, an overwhelming stench of booze, food all over the floor in the kitchen and washing up filling the sink. So much for the kitchen facilities. Despite this we made toast and coffee and sat down at the sticky table. I needed to get away from the site of ketchup on toast…does no-one learn how to cook anymore? Even I was finding this disgusting.

I felt sorry for the two young girls clearing up after everyone else though I’m afraid I finally couldn’t hold back my feelings on our stay as I found out our food had also been taken from the fridge. We couldn’t wait to go out for the day. Unfortunately, by now the young guy on the sofa had slid out from his duvet and was now splayed out, with all on show. Not a pleasant site. We stayed out all day, dreading our return. At least there was some solace in our wee room.

Despite complaints there was little that could be done. It seems this is not unusual at backpacker hostels in cities at the weekend. What will now be very unusual is finding me in one at that time.

….as for the nosepicking. This was the poster in the toilets…

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A day in the outback

It had been a while since we took a route that meant we could not actually ride our bikes but we had found one at last. Despite John joking that I always find the hilliest and most difficult journey believe me – this had not been intentional.

We only had a short ride today – just 35km or so between Crescent Heads and Port Macquarie. We had a backpackers room booked and these would be our first real beds since leaving Brisbane. With free WiFi and a town to explore we did not want to arrive late.

Aware we were taking what the map noted was an unsealed road we checked out what to expect from a local – the turn off we were looking at was right next to his house. Having been informed that the first 16km were ok, and despite being warned that we may need to change gear to get out of the potholes, we were undeterred. As it turned out these would be the least of our problems.

We hit our first gravel track after just 4km and while it slowed us down a little it was not as bad as we were expecting and we were still riding at 17km per hour. The gravel soon ended and while the small stretch of tarmac was short lived we were still in good spirits. The tricky bit lay just around the corner.

We were on Plumers Road, an unmaintained route through the national park. While there were brief glimpses of the ocean at what, we were told, were fabulous surf spots much of the route was lined with deep trees. We were in the bush. While there was a reasonable climb up the gravel track, known as Big Hill, again, compared to what was coming this was a dream.

Having come over the hill we approached a campground and a choice of roads. We stopped to check the map and asked some locals going past in their 4 x 4. The mosquitos were on us, the sun was hot and apparently it was sandy ahead. Still, we were half way now and I was not going back.

When riding into Ghanzi, Botswana, our day finished with a 3km push down a sandy track. I gritted my teeth, took off my shoes and despite remaining cheerful I was very pleased to put my bike down. There were many grumpy folk in camp that night…….yet looking back now this was not so bad.

In contrast to that day, completed as part of a supported tour, the sand was deeper, the distance just over double and I was no longer simply pushing a 17kg bike. This time I had the additional four panniers and my tent – around 50kg all up.

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John pushed on ahead – he’s really not a fan of these situations – I was slower at the back. While I can’t say I enjoy this type of riding I have to admit to loving the adventure. It was tough going but we were heading for comfy beds and a warm shower. After around 7km the sand ended and we were able to ride the last section to Port Macquarie. We had a short ferry journey through Settlement point then back on land we were able to begin our hunt for cake and coffee.

I’m a little more nervous now of the 4 x4 routes so close to the ocean but I hope there’s few more back roads to come yet.

Meet the locals

One of the major benefits of riding a bike as we travel the globe is that we meet a lot of people. Not being shut away means folk chat to us – cyclists, cafe owners, other campers. Some are intrigued by the “one year, five continents, twenty thousand kilometres” on the back of my cycle top and there are some take pity on us -  unsure of why on earth we are doing this but keen to know more. It’s always much easier to converse when language is common yet, despite occasional difficulties, these interactions often make our journey.

Regardless of which country we are in the knowledge of the folks who live there is always the best. They will always be able to share thoughts, comments and information that it is impossible to get from maps and guidebooks and this has certainly been the case once again as we started our trip through Australia.

Large towns and cities are often the most difficult to navigate but we were fortunate to be able to follow Kev out of Brisbane. His knowledge of bike lanes was brilliant but even better, arm signals and hill warnings meant we were never caught off guard as John and I followed through rush hour traffic. That day we finished our ride just as it was getting dark. We had reached Burleigh Heads …. the seaside. Fantastic.

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The following day it would be Chris, at the local bike shop, who told us about a great route off the highway. Despite some decent climbing this was a much better option and we had been warned about the steep climb (14%) as we made our way to Murlingarhh. Our final destination that day was Byron Bay, a hippie place again next to the sea. Despite having never been here before I had happy memories. Many years ago one of my best friends called me from here to announce her engagement…, well, I had to send them a postcard eh?

Sadly our run on happy locals had an intermediate blip. As one car sped past screaming so as to make me jump they were followed just a few seconds later by a second car. This time it was a young girl shouting “fuck cyclists” (sorry folks) as she passed. While one can only assume she was trying to impress friends I can only wish her the best of luck…… with friends like these…?

Fortunately these folk are few and far between and it was only the next day when our faith in humanity was restored. Having stopped for a wee cheap meal at a local bistro we only asked about local campgrounds and then the invite came. Before we knew it we had a place to stay, steak on the barbie and bacon and egg for breakfast. Having arrived as strangers we left Maria and Richards place as friends.

It’s funny. As we travel people often ask whether we are worried about meeting the bad guys. So far….it’s only great hospitality that blows us away.

I’ve often said 98% of folk are good and we just need to avoid the remainder. So far we’ve done pretty well. Here’s to the locals…where ever they may be.