Nothing quite beats setting off on a bicycle – with a chance to light a fire, boil a billy and think. I had six days in between the rush of changing lives, so there was no question as to what I would do: take to some steep, winding, country roads for about 430 km, from Scone to Newcastle.
So I slipped onto the 3.51 a.m. Scone train. 3.51? A.m.? Sunday morning? Of course, it’s the drug and alcohol post-party train, although by the time I got to Scone the last of the revellers had fallen off at stations along the way.
Scone’s claim to fame is that it is the horse capital of Australia. Fine if you like horses, but I was keen to get riding – but not down the highway. On a bike the back way becomes a blessing. It may be a few kilometres further than the busy highway, but the absence of traffic is worth a fortune. I was to find such back roads a few times on this ride, the best ones being the forgotten tracks. A single lane of bitumen, barely wide enough for a car, saying loudly and clearly that it was made for me and my ilk – a bike track through the hills, bush and farmland.
Later on that first day I found that track on the run into Denman, but a little earlier the back road out of Scone came close. It was full of horse studs, many, many flies, and an 11-year old girl on a bicycle of her own. At the roadward end of the farm track, she watched me pass with a question in her eye: from where had I come and where was I going? What is out there in the wider world? She reminded me a small boy who looked at me longingly in the remote town of Bombala a couple of years ago, willing himself to be older so he could follow the road out of town. I know that look and that longing, for I too have lived as a child in small country towns, full of the appeal of known communities, of their support for their own and exclusion of outsiders, of genuine concern, perpetual intrigue and endless gossip. But some long to take the road out of town and see what the world really is like.
The blond, curly-haired girl out the back of Scone did in fact follow me on the road for a few moments. I had stopped to check my map, so she pedalled up a few hundred metres and asked me if I needed some help. ‘Is that Muswellbrook over there?’ I asked, pointing to a town on the hill. ‘No, that’s Aberdeen’, she said. ‘But if you keep going along this road and turn left, you’ll get to Muswellbrook’. With a thankyou I was off. And so would she, I guessed, in a few years.
The first day might have been brilliant, with the cold beer in the pub at Denman, the old man who greeted me there with ‘Didn’t I see you in Muswellbrook?’ and even with the glorious camping spot by the creek and its welcoming party of mosquitoes, but the next day was a bitch. I felt like I was playing a lottery in which I couldn’t win. My best option was to get one out of three evils. Out of heat (it was 40 degrees), incessant flies and a gale-force head wind, I had won the wind. In its favour was the fact I kept coolish and that the flies had no chance of landing on me. But I had to grind away in gears usually reserved for steep climbs.
Singleton appeared too slowly out of the hills, but on the way I was gobsmacked by the coal mines. I have been in Singleton on a few occasions, daily I see the trains and trucks and conveyor belt bringing to coal to Newcastle, where up to 50 ships wait off the headland to haul coal to China. But the hugeness of the mines can only be experienced. Whole country-sides swept away, mountains full of coal seams blown apart, vast shovels digging, monster trucks carting, and the roads full of young miners on high pay packets. The old rural town of Singleton is now a booming mining town and the prices show it – I paid far more for basic foodstuffs than anywhere I have been for a while.
In a quiet corner of the camp ground I met Rob, who had come from WA to drive massive cranes over this way. There is an even greater job shortage here, he said. And they say they need 40,000 more people over the next couple of years. Hunter and WA mining are the reason why Australia avoided a recession in the economic crisis of 2008-9; forget the government’s economic stimulus package, since China wants our raw materials.
Eventually, the mines will run out of coal, the land will be rehabilitated and once again there will be hills and trees and grasslands (different ones than before), but I couldn’t wait a century or more, so I pedalled off to Gresford and Dungog. A great road, with its pick-a-plank bridges, villages, decent climbs and drops as you pass into the mountains. Here it was that I was asked if I had a rooster for sale, since the sign said they were wanted. Having no rooster on me just then, I had to pass up the opportunity. But I did manage to do better in the lottery, for the wind and heat had dropped and the flies had fled to seek more promising pastures.
Apart from a great pub where you can stay for next to nothing, Gresford is a country town that boasts a camping ground out the back of the showground and next to the swimming hole, expects you to light an open fire when you camp instead of those wimpy electric barbeques, and it still has – unlike the thirsty cities – handles on all the outdoor taps. And in Gresford I was helped out with my lunch fire by a grizzled man from the road crew which had stopped for lunch. Seeing that I was having trouble lighting the fire, he limped over and poured kerosene onto the wood. ‘Here’, he said, ‘and these rags’ll burn well for while’. I might have produced a billowing cloud of black smoke but the billy boiled soon enough.
The final climb to Dungog over Bingleburra is a grind in granny gear, but I don’t mind a good hill: get in gear, get in rhythm and eventually you make the top. It helps when you get drenched on the way up (why else is this part temperate rainforest?) to keep cool. And the drop down the other side is whooping, exhilarating mountain man stuff.
Still pumped, I flew into Dead Dog, aka Dungog, once a backwater no-one would dream of visiting, but now just beginning to emulate Lazarus. Day Four was to be a short ride, a hop over the range to Stroud (in lieu of a rest day). I hit the road earlyish, but already the road stuck to me every now and then, or rather my tyres. The hottest day of my ride so far had begun to melt the bitumen in parts, making small sucking noises as my wheels rolled over them.
Already pouring sweat, feeling the effects of the previous day’s climbing, I hit a tough climb within a few kilometres. It was simply a struggle all the way to the top. Country roads may be quiet, leaving you to your thoughts and spinning spokes, but they usually cut over the tough mountain passes, have rickety one-lane bridges, and patchwork surfaces that rattle the teeth out of your head. That’s why I love them so much.
Stroud was my destination for the night, a village where you could camp beside the showground for absolutely nothing. Here too you could light a fire – beats TV any night, I reckon. But first I had to find some food. A small grocery shop and a pub were my choices. In the first I grabbed a large bottle of what turned out to be disgusting creaming soda and some bread. On my way out I spotted a five cent piece and, as is my wont, picked it up. ‘I saw that too’, said an old woman in front of me. ‘But you keep it’, she smiled, ‘it’s good luck’. At the door of the second I met a man, stumbling up the steps from his Ute (a pickup). Tired, I guessed, time for a beer. A few minutes later he staggered out again, almost fell down the stairs and wove his way back to his vehicle, another bottle of beer under his arm. It took him a while to get the Ute started, before which he rolled half way down the hill. Finally he got going; I decided to give him a good fifteen minutes so I wouldn’t have to meet him on the road.
But Stroud also boasts an annual brick-throwing contest (I missed it), a solitary cyclist known as Tom (he came up and greeted me at 7am in the morning), and old fogeys who like walking around the showground at sunrise. I can vouch for the latter, since as I staggered out of my tent – the one I made with my father when I was 16 – the next morning in nothing but my undies, four of the local fossils greeted me enthusiastically on their morning walk and gossip.
But that next day was brilliant. I found my climbing legs again for another mountain pass, stopped at the top for a fire, billy and tea, and then dropped like a stone down the other side. At the thriving Bulahdelah I watched an old man trying to teach a silly dog how to swim, bought a massive lunch from a man with a Sikh turban, and then plunged into the mosquito infested Myall Lakes National Park.
I always feel like I’m on my way when a ride evokes former journeys and triggers plans for a new one. As I rode along the lakes, fighting off swarms of mosquitoes, I recalled an earlier trip down this road; then it was rough as guts and almost destroyed the old car I was driving. I remembered that my father, who died only six months before, had loved getting into the country and camping whenever he could, finding places much the way I do. And I began dreaming of a ride around Australia – 20,000 km through extensive deserts.
The spot for my last night backed onto the beach. There was no drinking water, so I carried in my own. But the ocean was the place to rinse off the sticky sweat, soak some muscles and enjoy entirely on my own and entirely naked. Fortified with tropical-strength mozzie-repellent, I cooked over a fire and watched it fade into the night.
Too soon it was the last day, but I had chosen a route that gave me an hour in an old boat – euphemistically called a ‘ferry’ – across Port Stephens (from Tea Gardens to Nelson Bay), before the run home. At the quiet Tea Gardens, young boys would run their boats as though they were bicycles. I preferred simply to sit and watch for dolphins. But I knew I was still in the country on the last stretch to home when I was introduced to the hamlet of Salt Ash with the sign, ‘Chook Poo at round-a-bout’. Now of course I already am planning the next ride – longer of course.