I was keen for remote places, the sort with no more than a trickle of water and some wood for a fire. I knew in advance it would require some rough, steep roads, especially for an old bicycle with skinny road tyres, but not quite what I had imagined. Four days opened up, a brief exodus from the busyness of those around me – studying, negotiating, dealing with waves of clan visitors. So I pointed my front tyre at the Watagan and then Yengo wildernesses, eventually to make my way to Sydney via a route I had not as yet tried: a boat.
I slipped out the back of my home town (Newcastle), passing by the wineries and mines. But I was eager for the mountains and the bush. As they drew near the traffic thinned, the land became more sparsely populated and the trees began to congregate in a way that is always welcoming. But mountains are also steep. In this case the track up the ridge was a mix of rock and dirt at an impossibly steep angle. Valiantly I ground away in granny gear, with my rear wheel skidding dangerously by the edge and the front wheel rearing with each push down on the pedals. All too soon I was soon using the two-foot gear, hauling uphill a bicycle that – full of tent, sleeping gear and food for two days – was very keen to join its friend gravity and tumble downhill.
With streaks of sweat running through the dust on my skin, I longed for a drink. No water at the first, inviting spot. Thankfully the second stop – a few kms on – offered a trickle of water and enough wood for a fire, so I could boil my drinking water and even have a bush wash. But it also offered a stunning cliff-top view, stretching east, west and especially north over the Hunter Valley to the mountains on the other side.
I was thoroughly mesmerised; I looked out – no, stared – over the view whenever I could. But other tasks called me away. The end of a day’s ride has its own rituals: wood to gather, fire to light, billy to fill, tent to pitch, bedding to lay out, bike to check, panniers in tent, a wash, a cup of tea, a meal. By then it is usually dark and my pattern is to sit by the fire and watch it into the (early) night. Except for tonight, for the view kept drawing me back.
The morning of the second day required a reverse of the previous tramp, but now I had to restrain the bike from its mad desire to go racing off down the mountain. After the drop, most of the day was spent on a quiet bitumen stretch for about threescore kilometres. Here I rode the route of the Great North Road, built in 1829-31. Forgotten for decades, centuries even, as a dismal failure, it has now been reclaimed as a great heritage item: 200 kilometres of road through the wilderness from Sydney to the Hunter Valley. The road’s problem was that it was finished – at great cost – just as steamships offered a viable and cheap way to travel. So people took the sea route of a few days rather than the treacherous land route that took over a week. Some parts of the road are still used, passing over what are euphemistically called ‘convict’ built features – walls, culverts, ramps and drains. Little is said about the ancient Aboriginal routes that the road followed, routes that went back tens of thousands of years and close to a site – Mt Yengo – of enormous religious and cultural significance. Little is said, directly, of the fact that it is Australia’s largest piece of infrastructure that was built with slave labour.
The end of the slave road, at least for my day of riding, had its own challenges. The last few, long kilometres were sand. And I had to negotiate my entry into the Yengo wilderness in the rain. Sandstone – the dominant geological feature of the area – has a strange knack of turning into sand, but on this occasion it seemed that the road grader had a dislike of bicycles, for he had just been through and spread even more sand on the road. Two wheels, no matter how knobbly (and my tyres certainly weren’t knobbly), simply do not manage on sand. And so I trudged on endlessly, each time thinking the next corner would bring me to a spot where I had last camped more than a decade ago.
Mogo Creek it was called. Full of memories, of my father pitching a tent with his lame leg, of my parents eager to spend some time with my children, of a brief visit on a fold-up bicycle when one of my sons had just – unknown to me at the time – been rushed to intensive care after his house burned down. But it also had a shelter against the rain, swamp wallabies who visited the camp at night and a persistent massive spider who liked the warmth of the fire as much as I did. I had a glorious night, warming myself by the fire as the rain drummed on the corrugated iron roof, all the while talking to the spider, which eventually relaxed from its haunched I-am-about-leap-and-sing-my-fangs-into-your-leg look.
Only on the third day did I begin to meet people – a fact that had much to do with me heading – reluctantly – towards civilisation once again.
The first were the silverbacks. Actually, I didn’t meet them, but I did some across a sign that advertised ‘Silverbacks Training, Tuesdays and Thursdays 6.oo pm’. That sign would have come in very useful at home, where the silverbacks at work could train to become even more arrogant, aggressive and abrasive. But here, of course, it was the first grade Rugby League team of the Glendale Gorillas.
The second was the tanned old village publican with a smoker’s rattle.
I strode into his pub, looked around and asked in a very non-silverback manner, ‘Do you have any milk?’
‘Nah’, he said, laughing. ‘Maybe up the road’.
Next the spattered woman turned up a little further down the road. At a village called ‘The Letter A’ I stopped to buy some oranges, rustled about for a bit, dropped a coin in the honesty box. Then she appeared. Or rather, her breasts appeared a few minuted before she did. Full, slightly sagging in that sexy way of older women, covered in antediluvian splotches, they needed no introduction. She had large ear-rings, a mop of shoulder-length black hair and a way of speaking that said one joint too many.
‘Is the intersection to Yarramalong nearby?’ I said.
‘Dunnow’, she said. ‘Maybee it’s the oone uuup the rooaad’.
By the time I hit Woy Woy and the Central Coast I was meeting all sorts of people. Woy Woy is a town of stubble where everyone seems to have a cigarette butt hanging out of their mouths (and that was just the women and the kids), but they were friendly and very helpful, full of directions, advice about traffic (they’re crap drivers here) and the hills ahead.
My destination was Patonga. Hidden away at the end point of the Central Coast, I had come to catch the boat to the other side then Sydney. To get here had been an extraordinary day’s ride, with the quiet of Yengo, the brake-smoking drop to the coast, the juggle with cars, asking directions from scruffy skaters, and a final thumping climb at the 94 km mark.
Yet as soon as I lifted a leg off the bike in Patonga Camping ground he was upon me: the cyclist. A grey nomad of sorts, he talked endlessly of rides he was doing on a fold-up Dahon, plans he had for tours, eyed my ‘strange’ bike longingly and peppered me with questions. But when I knocked on the door of their massive campervan, I heard the other side of the story from his wife.
‘We sold the house’, she told me, ‘and bought this. When I get my second hip replacement, we’ll be off north. Has Clarence found you yet? He’d love to tour but can do only day rides, what with me and my hips …’
Whenever I ride, I find that the constant physical activity allows my mind to roll around, relax and run in all manner of directions. As the spokes spin a silver blur, thoughts and memories tumble out. Arguments are lost and won, previous rides evoked, the dead remembered (mainly my father). Since I like to pedal on isolated roads and find spots to camp where I am alone, I often voice those thoughts out aloud. The catch is that I sometimes continue to do when civilisation returns, bringing on strange looks – at this tanned, stubbled and filthy cyclist muttering to himself.
On this ride I was more conscious than usual of the rhythms of the day’s ride. The first day of a ride is always wearying until you find your legs again, bodily recalling what is needed in terms of food and rest. After that the day passes through phases – apart from the odd day which is full of wind, heat and flies, when all you want is to get it over and done with. To break up the day I like to stop often, light a fire and boil a billy for the pure pleasure of a simple act. At one of those stops, usually late in the morning after a good stretch of riding, my legs feel like lead and I ponder setting up camp there and then. But then, after a feed and a break, a second wind is upon me and the leaden weariness lifts for a glorious stretch.
On this ride there were two or three of those runs. It may have been after a turn away from the traffic to follow the quiet Sandy Creek Road with its twists and turns and the wind at my back; it may have been on a gut-breaking climb called Lemming Corner; it may have been early on the third day, high on a ridge in the Yengo Wilderness. The kilometres roll by without notice, the bush absorbs you, the mind ticks over in a great release, and you grin from pure pleasure. No wonder I long for the next ride, for this one always ends too soon.