Wednesday 21 December 2011

A Month Outback

Bush Tucker Time

Not even a road-sign for shade

The see-through towns owned only one heat bent old nag. They were but slivers of ization, middle in a bovine plain. Collections of sheet metal bashed to form houses, water-tanks and wind-vanes and slowly oxidizing museums of cars scattered amongst the weeds. We stopped long enough to scavenge any fallen mangoes, read any information available; “Kayuna, one time home of A.J ‘Banjo’ Patterson of ‘Waltzing Matilda Fame’. Population in 1894 – 184, population in 2004 – 20, projected population for 2014 – 2”, buy a half liter petrol for our stove, fill up with water, pass the time of day with whoever is on the street, often nobody, and move on.

The roadsides are strewn with the plastic peel of high calorie comfort foods and half full bottles of designer drinks in red, green, blue and see through. Four dollar treats we can ill-afford slung from the briefly opened windows of air conditioned cars. Still, we are happy with our campfire dampers, porridge oat biscuits and bore-water. Are we not Anja?...Anja…she is nodding sideways, well, they taste good when we are hungry.

We have various methods of saving water. After dinner conversation may go like this; ‘Shall I wash the plates and pans tonight or lick ‘em?’…”Nah, we washed ‘em last night, jes’ lick ‘em clean, tilt yer hat back first though”. Sometimes we load up with over a week’s food and 26 liters of water, enough for 2 days; we may even get a wash out of this. Tea and the thought of tea keeps us going. One time when we found our first shade of the day mid-afternoon, we drank six cups of weak tea each, pretty much back to back.
Can't see the bush for the Gum trees

Road-Train hurricanes coming head on stop us in our tracks. They are infrequent but I sometimes lose my hat. Should say helmet as it is law outside of the Northern Territories, but who gives a damn out here. I don it in ‘town’ just to show respect for the law.

We will not miss the stench of rotting kangaroo. So many more dead than alive. They come to the roadside ditches where the grass is sweeter and fail to understand either fences, trucks or headlights. By no means the only indigenous species unable to adapt to modern machine-mans ways.

Australians it seems will go to even greater lengths to avoid getting out of their cars than the Americans.

We leave Tennants Creek strengthened after a break and turn into strong to gale-force winds which we fight for a week to Mount Isa. A Swiss grey nomad whom we meet in some shade asks us where we sleep at night. I look left and right and indicate ‘out there’ with my head. “Is it not too dangerous”? She asks, and we reply “but there is no-one out there”. A confused look in her eye indicates that that, for her, is the problem.

There is no-one out there. In 2000kms of outback we saw one woman on a horse and that was only half a mile from a station. As in parts of Asia one knows there are people there, always, though unseen, one knows that here is no-body. Where we camp, say 500 m from the road you could stay for a year and no-one would know you are there. The only company are the gurgley birds in various colours, the screechy birds, the laughing monkey birds (you don’t want them roosting in a tree above your tent telling jokes about you all night), the punk parrots with yellow mohicans and the insects of course. A giant, majestic Kangaroo may visit inquisitively at dusk or an Emu invite himself for breakfast, but the nearest human is sometimes a hundred miles away. We cut but a thin line through a large continent and know there must be people outdoors somewhere doing tough, leathery cowboy things. We just don’t see them.

Dangers there are though , as we have found out. We are not altogether naïve but have made a few errors in this land with wich we are so unfamiliar, and met with unexpected forces.

One day we rode towards smoke on the horizon, clearly a bushfire on the N. side of the road. The wind blew as ever from the SE. As we got slowly nearer the fire was bigger than we thought and was creating its own cumulus clouds and weather system. We managed to get eventually beyond it only to see another bushfire, smaller but nearer the road. It is not unknown for these fires to have 100km fronts and throw balls of fire the size of cars.

Tired and hungry we called a halt, the sun was sinking and we made camp south of the road. If the wind doesn’t change we will be fine, we convinced ourselves, and planned to keep checking throughout the night. As it got dark though we could see the orange of the fire through the trees, a scary and unexpected sight. We knew we should be no-where in this vicinity.

The wind stilled as usual and the glow seemed to dwindle somewhat. I could have sensed a wind change in my sleep had one occurred. By morning the fire was all but out. The trees seem mostly to survive and in this season the grass grows back quick and green. Probably more foreign cyclists come along to replace those singed every season.
Big Sky Country

Not far from Mt Isa is a beautiful creek lined with green grass and gum trees. The water flows slow and brown and the place is too inviting to ride past on an afternoon hot enough to fade your hat. So the billy is on the fire for tea, the tent has been pitched in the shade and the menu being drawn up for dinner when one of us remembers the crocodile advice. Are we back in Salty territory? Damn, we don’t know. Forgot to ask someone. My logic says no, we are 400kms from the gulf of Carpentaria where the river leads, too far. Also we are too high, 300m or so, nothing called a ‘Salty’ would dare to venture so far and high would it? If I were a crock though, I would be happy in this water; deep and dark and slow where the animals come so obviously down to drink. I decide we are ok. And if I am wrong then it’s a big error but having made the choice I will forget it and sleep well. Anja worries more as night draws on (often my role) till I ask if she wants to move away from the river into the long grass with the snakes. We stay where we are and survive but we now casually ask the yokels about the crocodile situation.

Storms and rain are another problem. Lightning apparently starts most of the bushfires and its easy to believe when you have witnessed the storms here. Camping one night in the bush by a dry creek, dinner was disturbed by rain which turned into a thunderstorm lasting most of the night. The clay like earth absorbed no water at all it seemed and the ground was awash and the creek filling up fast. It appeared to be a tossup whether we would drown from flooding, get struck by lightning or burnt in the ensuing bushfire. We were kneeling on our sleeping mats (recommended safety position, though recommended by whom, neither of us could remember) and praying for the storm to let up. There was lightning all around and no time-gap before the thunder. One strike nearly got us I am sure. It was so close we could smell burnt ozone from in the tent. Finally the worst of it moved off across the plain and we could see no fire, (how does a fire spread with so much water around)? Dawn was upon us and we packed up camp only to find the clay had absorbed just enough water to stick to us like glue. The wheels on the bikes clogged up and we had to shove and carry them back to the road. Hard, work and a pair of hours spent cleaning them up a bit. I am thinner than usual these days and covered in mud, Anja said I looked like a tent peg freshly pulled from the ground. I lost my title of ‘Adventure Tom’ backalong with the leech experience; I guess there are worse names than “Mien schmuztige Hering”.
They are making it up!

We see often inch diameter holes in the ground, tunnels with whispy-web coatings. Backpacker eating spiders we reckon. After leaving a camp where there were many of these dwellings I saw on Anjas back pannier a spider. It was large flat and hairy, had Hazchem written all over it and moved in an intelligent way, if that is possible.

I did a great Dads Army ‘Don’t Panic, Don’t Panic’ impression and nearly made Anja fall from her bike. To regain some respect (from the spider at least), I flicked it skillfully off, Sam Gamgee-wise across the road with my bicycle-pump. We were remarking to each other that that was the damn scariest spider either of us had ever seen by a long, long way when the furry fiend ran back super-fast across the road and back onto the bike. For the next five minutes we played hide and seek with the canny beast until finally it was flicked into the grass.

From snakes we have seen very little, though we always stomp about a bit in the bush to let them know we are coming.

With a headwind every day we were getting worn out. An afternoon on the banks of Chinamans Creek by Cloncurry restored a little strength and spirit but by Winton we needed a full day off. There was a muddy waterhole and we spent the day by it, underneath the shade of a coolabar tree, fixing the bikes, eating and drinking tea and watching the birds.

The pond was no more than 50m across, with a big island in it, a few miles out of town. Damn if a pick-up didn’t bring a speedboat to launch and spend an hour racing from one side to the other. They love a bit of water in the outback. Nice to see grown men having fun. I guess!


One afternoon the wind blew our way. We were still in the clay-country and needed hard standing for the tent. Truck lay-bys were the answer, we had them marked on the map and they often had a picnic table and some shade. Reaching easily at 3pm one 50km further that we had planned we left at 4pm with 44km to Longreach. As they say, you’ve got to make your hay when the sun decides to shine. Eight kms down the road the wind turned. We fought it for another 3kms and realized we would be fighting for hours instead of easily cruising into town. This was more like sailing than cycling. Down to 9km\h we did what I have never considered before, we turned back and blew home to where we were an hour or so before where we tied our tent to an insubstantial bush and hoped for another change in wind before morning.

Settling for a fickle crosswind, we set off once more and finally sailed into Longreach on a broad-reach. Great cattle town.

We rode out with the wind behind us again. Riding the same speed as a strong wind, all goes quiet, it is like being still, only the billowing of the long-grass gives away the gale.

I was just remarking on how the gods seemed to have let Turner paint the sky this day when they took away his brushes and gave them to Blake. A black storm was closing in on us from behind and to the North. Sir William was doing his best to reach us with thunderbolts and boiling clouds. With no Emus in sight we were the highest thing we could see so we decided to make a run for it. A 30km run as it turned out, we knew there was shelter in 50. As one Blake’s bearded storm gods took a swipe at us with his hand, we were splattered with turpentine rain but the angry snort from his nostrils blew us out of reach, we were hammering along at 35kmh with lightning splitting the skies behind us.

The dead straight road took a slight bend southwards and the storm tumbled on straight east, unable to turn under its own momentum. The angry artist was ordered to pass along his brushes and, though they didn’t let him paint any hats or pipes or anything daft, it seemed they let Magritte have a go. He did us one of his endless blue skies over green grass with evenly spaced cumulus clouds which seem to have had their bottoms cut off with a knife. Clouds that let you see extending far further than the horizon. Chapeau René.

To end the day all the minor battleship artists were allowed to practice their skies. There were four or five storms to watch at one time.

One evening just outside of Jericho we were surrounded by thousands of flying foxes; large fruit bats that came to drink from the Jordan river. They were not the meter wingspan type we had seen in Java, maybe 18 inches from tip to tip but there were more of them. I reckon a flap of bats that big could eat more mangoes than Anja in a sitting.

The morning of the great spider fight we pulled into a lay-by and found the gravel to be moving. Closer inspection revealed it to be the great woodlouse migration. Millions upon millions swarmed through the grass and along the road and looked, from head height like wildebeest from a helicopter. Where were they going and why?


We have battled the wind as far as Emerald where we swim in the brown river that flows around thick tree trunks in the extensive botanical gardens. These Australian towns have the most wonderful parks.

Today we saw crops and fields, a town that is reasonably busy and all of a sudden things have changed.

Now in Queenslands central highlands, we rode over the hazy-blue Drummond Range, part of the Great Dividing Range, and are only a few days from the coast. The weather is noticeably cooler; we are 20 miles south of the tropics and maybe the coast cools things down. Not sure if we want civilization for Christmas, we may head for a national park with a flagon of wine and some lamb chops and spend a few days with the birds and beasties before rolling down (yeah right) to the beach.

Only 2000kms to Sydney and no idea what to do then. Oh, I forgot, we fly (again) to New Zealand on the 10th Feb.

Merry Christmas everybody, I don’t expect you’ll be hearing from us before then, email is not easy at all to find. Have a good day you all. We shall eat well now the shops are closer than 500 miles apart, might even find some mince pies, they like pies the Ozies it seems, though I doubt they will be home made. I won’t miss brussel sprouts but I do like one of Ma’s homemade mince pies at Christmas.

I seen you before mate!

Termite Carnac


“I seen you before mate !”

What in the Dreamtime or something? I’m thinking this is fantastic. The first human contact in Australia real and this guy is the genuine article. Black Fella, Spear Chukka, Aboriginal, take your pick, long graying hair and a beard and at first I think he works for the airport somehow because he has a once fluorescent vest on and we are skirting the runway perimeter. Then I notice the large, boney, bare feet and the raggedy shorts.

“I seen you. You came up there, then you didn’t like ‘dat road much so you came over the grass to ‘dis one. I came along up there and then down there and you came along there and here we are.”

“Here we are. So it seems”

“Where you goin’ mate?”

His accent is Australian but thicker, deeper than I have heard before, like thick Claret against a light Beaujolais Neuveau


“Yeh, that’s over that way.”

He points out across the bush

“Which road would I take?”

“Ah, go down this road then down the next road, that might get you there.”

“Thanks a lot, eh… Bye”.

He looks a little disappointed, I’m not sure if it is because I am going or because I want to go to Darwin of all places.

“I guess I might see you sometime in the future then”. He says, and really mulls over the possibility.

“I hope so mate, I really do.”

As my new friend lopes across the road and into the bush, Anja pulls up beside me.

“Who was that, she says.”

“That, I believe, was Stone-Age Man.”

Welcome to Australia.

We had met some “real” Australians in the airport. White guys with big bellies, shorts and vests. As I pulled our bikes off the merry-go-round one specimen asked me if we were some of the crazy people intending to ride through the outback. No, I replied we thought we might just have a spin round the park in Darwin and fly back home.

“Ha Ha. Funny. I drive a road train and keep sucking in cyclists, they keep coming and I pass ‘em and they keep getting sucked in.”

“Yeah, look out for road trains.” Pipes up another chap. “But you are far more likely to die of heat stroke this time of year, that and dehydration”

“No no.” says a third man “ They are far more likely to drown in a flood or get blown away by a cyclone, it’s the wet season.” He turns to us. ” It would be better if you came in July.”

We left these optimists to fading shouts of “Look out for the crocs and the snakes” and headed outside to piece together our bikes and ride into town to stay with Brennan, our Couch Surfing host and his ever-changing family of backpackers.

We planned on a day in Darwin, shopping and getting maps and achieved everything we wanted, got some good advice (finally), only to wake up sick on the leaving day. While everyone was sweating and cursing the heat, I was pulling on jumpers and feeling cold, a real fever. Anja was the same but a day later than me.

After four days we wobbled weakly out of Darwin, struggled 64kms down the road and crawled into the bushes to make an early camp.

We were in a meadow of Magnetic Termite Mounds, over 2m high, 1m wide, 15cm thick and all pointing East to West. They were giant menhirs, aligned uncannily like the stone rows at Carnac, facing perhaps a similar equinox. To imagine that ants and men could build monuments in deference to the same deities. This was already the outback proper and would change little for the next 800kms. We began to notice the only variance in landscape being the size shape and colour of the termite mounds, the amount of bark on the gum trees, and the frequency of the crocodile-creeks, (don’t camp to close – fair dinkum; if one gets you, poke it in the eyes – easier said than done I bet; if you go to get water make sure it’s moving and shallow, they like deep holes – useful info).
A familiar sight

Another hard, slow day brought us to a lay-by where we camped next to a young French couple on tour in a car. In the night a jeep pulled up and a bunch of loud young men spilled out, apparently for a nights reveling. Strange place, the nearest town was a hundred miles away. They spoke a strange language neither of us knew what, then a burst of almost English… “It’s the local fellas again, I said to Anja.”

We had been warned, even by the non-bigoted, to be a little wary of this mob. We were at least partially aware now of some of the social problems affecting the Aboriginals in the Northern Territories and some of the results thereof. I figured the best thing was to go and say hello.

Did I sit barefoot in a circle and hear some tales and wisdom from the ancient culture?…not exactly. I sat booted (they were barefoot) in a circle and discussed, inadequately on my part, the merits of Chelsea over Manchester United. I had sworn before we left but was in the end too lazy, to learn the names of a few English league football players, and a few Cricket names. It seems you can just say ‘Wayne Rooney’ or ‘David Beckham’ (a bit out-dated now) and part good friends with strangers from anywhere in the world.

All the boys seemed related somehow and lived in a community beginning with B somewhere south eastish and indeterminably far. “You should visit our town on the Queen’s birthday, we have a big party, it’s quite famous and one year some tourists came”. I was too embarrassed to let on that I had no idea when the, I should say ‘my’, Queens birthday was but if I find out and am in that neck of the woods at the right time I will surely visit. I am a Republican Anarchist with Communist leanings but can think, now, of no better reason for a party in the middle of the outback, than celebrating an English Monarch’s birthday.
Outback Sunset

The Aboriginals have a particular way of talking. They will look the other way and say something fairly casually and not, in words, outstandingly profound but the way they say it carries a surprising weight. We always feel a little honored when any of them take the time to talk to us. Not that they are busy. Busy seems to be a foolish, modern frivolity they have no time for. Another thing is that they always remember your name. Not in a polished, American salesman-type way, you sometimes don’t remember giving your name but on parting they will use it, like the first guy we met, as if they expect to meet you again sometime.

I sit now in the shade by a swimming-pool in a campsite in Tennants Creek. It took eleven or twelve hard days to get here and the same number of nights ‘crawling into the bushes’ as Anja calls it, (actually she says ‘crowling into ze bashes’ and I have no desire to tweak her pronunciation). We have splashed out on a day off in civilization (little c, says I, the Snooty Pomm).

I hope that this blog may have encouraged one or maybe two souls to venture out on two wheels and make a modest cycle-tour. My attitude is that almost anyone can do it. When gym-fit twenty-somethings descend from their taxi’s, buses and 4x4’s and say to us on our bikes, “blimey, I could never do that” I get a bit annoyed and think, “yes you could but you’re too lazy to want to”. I must however point out that Outback Australia in the summer is perhaps not the time and place to begin cycle-touring. The going can be at times a little strenous.
We're no longer afraid of the long straight road

I figured Australia is flat right? Wrong. It’s all uphill. The roads are good and fast are they not? No, they are good but sharp gravel sprinkled on tar makes loud and slow going. I counted on a constant headwind so at least got one thing right. Oh yeah! I almost forgot.. It’s hot.

So we battled for days and days against illness, relentless heat, slow roads and headwind. Riding 10kms then hiding in what shade we could find until we worked up enough courage for another stint. Until now there have been trees but as they were all designed by Dr Zeus the shade they offer is scant at best. ‘Kein A1 shatten’! remarks Anja disappointedly. You can sit in the ‘shade’ with your hat on and somehow your face is still in the sun. Sometimes we pray for our normally beloved orb to sink through its self made, orange horizon-soup to go and bother you guys in the West. The only other fleeting shadow is cast occasionally by a circling fleet of raptors overhead. They sometimes follow us for miles, searching for a sign of weakness. “Keep your shades on Anja, don’t let them see the fatigue in our eyes!” Flies, undeterred by our paltry speed, wander across our savannah dry faces to drink from our billabong eyes. Balls of fur bounce away through the undergrowth and giant lizards hot foot it across the heat-haze highway. The Northern Territories, Top End.

Some days we spend 7 hard hours in the saddle and average 15 kmh. The last day into Tennants Creek the wind veered around, blew from almost behind us and we cruised easily into town averaging 22.5kmh on the clock. Now that is more like it, though with no wind to cool us down it is even hotter. On a cloudy afternoon the thermometer may drop to a cool 40 c in the shade.

We constantly raise hot water-bottles to our cracking lips but can’t seem to ever quench our thirst. Only the thought of lunchtime tea keeps us going at all. Some say you can’t drink the bore-water (boring water we call it). It can be a bit brackish but mostly it’s ok. Can’t afford to be fussy. There are petrol stations every 100kms or so but with a loaf of Mothers Pride costing over 5$ we can’t shop here. We have stocked up on 8 days worth of provisions, we hope, and set out tomorrow for Mt Isa 600 odd kms away with little in between.

So, well, this is the hardest cycling on the trip so far. It’s 45 degrees in the shade if you find any. I once wet my shirt in a creek (deep and still but I was quick) and put it back on. The water was warm but suddenly I was freezing cold, man, this lasted a minuit and a half and then I was dry again. The effect of rapid evaporation at work I guess. An Aboriginal guy we have befriended in TC told me not to do it or I’ll get sick. Well that’s just spoilt my only fun.
This Chap keeps following us!

There was heavy rain around Darwin but we left it behind in Katherine about 700 kms back. Apparently we will find it again in Queensland. El Nino or La Nina (I forget) is playing silly buggers again this year so they are reckoning on more flooding in the East. We will deal with that if and when we encounter it. One hot sweaty night (can one die from dehydration while sleeping?), I was still a little hallucogenic from the fever, fire-flies were putting on a fire show to rival any beach-hippiechick and lightening was constant and all around. We heard a rustling in the trees, louder and nearer it came and then it swept through the tent, a cool strong wind, a draught from the wings of an Angel. We basked a while in its breath and then came the rain. Before long I was outside in my altogether scrabbling in the mud with our faithful little trowel, digging a trench round the tent to divert the worst of the groundwater. As a child I had ‘The Ladybird Book of Camping’ with a cartoon picture on the cover of a happy chap eating his dinner as a torrent was diverted around his camp by carefully excavated trenchwork. This, back then, was my idea of heaven. I guess that night , just south of Katherine, I achieved in a way a long forgotten ambition. The picture though, of me at work, is not one for the cover of a children’s how-to book.

Most nights though are fantastic, the sunset and birdsong are particular to Australia. We could be no-where else. Giant Parrots squawk and pass in frantic clouds, followed by smaller, multi-coloured ‘keets and ‘toos. Spoonybilled storkybirds hoover up frogs from grassy floodwaters and unseen hundreds of greenybeaks chirp and hoot in the gum trees,(one day we might find a bird book). My favorite though are the ‘Naughty-Birds’, Anja calls them ‘Nasty-Birds’ but I like the little fellas. They are cocky and a little like jackdaws but with more colourful and expressive gurgly-chirp voices. They have a magpie’s strut, hang around in sixes or sevens and often pay us a lunchtime visit. They like cheese.

Rarely have we slept so far from other humans. There is often no-one for 60 miles or more in any direction. The stars are indescribable and we think we have finally picked out the Southern Cross. Orion is the only familiar form we can see though I can’t understand what he is doing down here. He lays upside-down, low in the East. The cool hour in the morning is best for cycling, but also best to eat our porridge or camp-flapjacks, drink a mug of coffee and watch the day begin.

Should we have backed out of the outback? Possibly. I ride ‘point’ all the time and just seem to lose more and more weight. Steak and eggs last night and the same tonight (I hope). We can’t seem to drink enough for a healthy coloured urine. Most people we meet tell us we are crazy. The only people outside here are the Aboriginals sitting in the shade in town. This may sound a little weird, even offend some people, but so far, Australia seems to us to be very much an indoor culture. A similar phenomenon seems to exist to that which I noticed years ago in the Southern USA; people have air-conditioned houses, shops and businesses, shuttle between them in air conditioned 4x4’s, and never acclimatize to the heat. I went 12 days without going inside a building; in Tennants Creek I did the shopping, 40 minutes in a frigid, AC. emporium and when I came out it felt 20 degrees hotter than before, I couldn’t believe how Anja could bare to sit outside. There must be some real tough guys working outside at the cattle-stations, doing jobs one can’t do from a pick-up. We just have not seen them. Most Australians seem overweight or at-least unfit (damn, I am going to be unpopular), and struggle to walk from their vehicles across the car-park to the supermarket. The minority, let’s say 10%, look like they could run two marathons back to back before lunch without working up a sweat (given the right synthetic energy supplements and sports drinks of course). It’s all or nothing it seems. Please forgive my frankness any Auzie reading this, you must understand we spent 15 months in Asia and have undergone a kind of culture-shock.

The people we have met have all been friendly and interesting whether oldly native or new. The Northern Territories must be a pretty hard place to live. There seems to either be too little water or too much and there doesn’t appear to be much in the way of soil. No mountains to erode, never any ice to do the eroding, no forests as such to hold what there is. It seems any soil that may form is washed away each year and this has gone on repeatedly for millennia, eons even. When the Stuart Highway drives through a shallow cutting, the clean-cut sections show a basic stratification; cracked red rock with a few millimeters of red gravel on top. The green must somehow cling to this. There is a lot of green right now but I don’t think it lasts even half the year. The trees must have roots that penetrate rocky fissures in search of moisture. Life here looks so thin and fragile, it is only a skim on the surface of what would otherwise look, I fear, very much like Mars.