Sometimes it is best to begin a ride under-prepared. The surprises are greater, the confidence gained stronger and the experiences more intense. I was chased by dingoes, met the Taree swagman, met Harold the sore-arse farmer and traced the geography of three women in my past lives.
I had to be in Brisbane for other matters, so decided to ride home to Newcastle – a mere 800 km or so. I planned to travel mainly along the east coast of Australia, away from the bitter westerly winds and below zero nights of the New England tableland (where I had once lived – in Armidale). The first part of the route would take me a little inland, through the ancient Mount Warning caldera and down through the forests and farmlands of the Summerland and Orara Ways, via Casino and Grafton. After that and with some trepidation, I would join the infamous Pacific Highway for the remainder of the ride home.
At the beginning of the ride I was definitely not into it. The alienating Gold Coast did not help, the fears of abusive drivers, doubts about fitness and the inevitable farm dogs made me wonder why I had set out on the ride at all. By the sixth day and a few hundred kilometres later, however, all that had changed: the ride became one of the most enjoyable and significant I have ever done. More of that later …
I began in what must be the most Americanised part of Australia – the Manhattanised Gold Coast in south-east Queensland. Here massive high-rise hotels abut the ordinary beaches, a back street is a main road, a main road a four-lane highway, a highway a six-lane freeway and a freeway an extraordinary 12-lane affair. On the pitiful railway line that extends a few kilometres along the coast, stations are announced with: ‘for Dream-World and White-Water-World alight here’; or ‘for Movie-World and Mindless-Rip-Off-World this is your station’. I was pleased to get out of the place.
The next few days, riding 80-90 kilometres a day on a bike loaded with winter gear, were supposed to be along quiet back roads. Barely two lanes, they were by all accounts lightly trafficked. I celebrated few such stretches, usually early in the morning through forests of glorious trees, trying to get the circulation going to frozen toes and fingers – precisely where the tough climbs I love come in handy. By and large, however, those roads were damned busy. Truckies are fine, since they give you a wide berth when possible, wait back for a clear passing when needed, hoot in thanks when you pull over to let one pass. But car drivers … why is that people suddenly become impatient behind the wheel of a car? Why can they not wait a few seconds to pass safely? Why do they imagine that three millimetres is more than enough clearance room from your right elbow? Why do drivers insist on talking on mobile phones while belting along winding country roads at 150 kph? And why do P-plate drivers in ancient V-sixes feel that abuse is the universal greeting for a touring cyclist?
The towns through which I passed did not help this early mood. In Murwillumbah I squelched through the worst sausage rolls and vego pies in the universe, while avoiding the ibis crap and dodging the stoned old fogeys staggering about town. In Casino I was reminded of the small country towns in which I grew up: overweight boys on roller-scooters wobbling about, deros approaching me in a quiet park by the river, beaten-up commodores aimlessly cruising. In Grafton the drivers still struggled with those new-fangled things called round-abouts; indeed the town has one of the highest ratios of village idiots I have encountered – and all of them drive cars.
What saved this part of the ride were some magnificent spots to pitch a tent. Given it was a winter ride, I had those spots largely to myself – whether in the locality (not even a village) of Wadeville, where the ageing stoners gathered around the unofficial pub, drank scores of bottles of beer and passed around pipes full of strange substances and celebrated Les’s birthday (he was 75); or in the Braemar State Forest with its water tank full of freezing water and its resident rooster and hen who would wake you with a pitiful crow at first light; or in the amazing five-star caravan park in Grafton, with its CCTV cameras, faux bush setting for tents and retirees in motorised wheelchairs who greeted you on arrival and talked endlessly … about the same thing, over and over; or in Coffs Harbour where I shared cooking space with some solid who consumed vast quantities of sausages, eggs and steak, working devotedly to increase their already impressive guts, as well as the Queensland doper on a permanent bicycle tour, who talked very slowly and had little idea where he would end up at the end of the day.
Midpoint, my sense of the ride changed quite dramatically, largely due to two surprises: the Pacific Highway and sore-arse Harold. It probably helped that I was by now fully into the ride and rhythms.
Life became pleasurably simple: wake at first light at a little after 6am, after ten hours sleep on an exceedingly thin and surprisingly comfortable air mat; pile on the winter wool; poke the fire’s ashes for a flame and a billy for tea; pack sleeping gear and tent; breakfast; change into riding gear and pack clothes, billy, book and whatever is left into the second pannier; off before 8am; ride, billy, eat, piss; ride, billy, eat, piss; ride, billy, eat, shit; after 80-100 km arrive mid-afternoon; pitch tent; clean and check bicycle; wash; change into warm gear; cook dinner on fire; if no external light, ponder universe by the fire until 8pm; go to bed.
Back to the highway and Harold: I had anticipated the infamous Pacific Highway with foreboding. Renowned for its frenetic traffic and horrific accidents, it is supposed to be hell for cyclists. I found none of the sort. Here was a wide shoulder on which I could ride in comfort at a great pace. Here were grand forests with alcoves into which to retreat for my ritual of billy-eat-piss ritual. Here were vistas over the ocean as I turned a corner. Here were gut-busting climbs that were full of ascetic pleasure. Here was a vast collection of detritus, fallen off vehicles, that became a treasure trove for a scavenger like me. Here were courteous truckies who gave you plenty of room. Every now and then, on a new section, here was a grand veloway made for long-haul cyclists like me.
And here was Harold, the sore-arse farmer from Victoria. I had just lit a fire and was leaning over it with the billy on a stick. A big man with a bushy beard, a wide grin and a warm handshake pulled and asked: ‘have you enough for me?’ He was on a ride from Cairns to the country town of Portland in Victoria – about 4000km, of which he had completed 2500km. We rode together for the rest of the day, talking as we rode and talked as we stopped.
He had bought his Surly Long-Haul Trucker a few months ago and had begun riding in New Zealand after many years of not even thinking about a bicycle. Now, during his trek from the far north of Australia, he was planning grand rides around the world – Alaska to Argentina, across Canada, through Europe. I felt like I was out for a little peddle on my ride from Brisbane. But he said it was great, meeting someone who thought nothing of getting on a bike for such a journey.
Harold would ride without a mirror to see the traffic, with an ipod plugged into his ears, with string strapping up his peddles, with but three bottles of water, and with what seemed to me piles of gear – five panniers and tent on top. I prefer to keep it to two panniers, even in winter. After about 100km, he would simply find a spot in the bush to camp for the night, occasionally pulling into a youth hostel for a shower every five days or so.
Above all, Harold had a very sore arse. He had a well-padded saddle, backed up with extra padding, but it always left him with a chronically raw bum. He wondered at my leather saddle, constantly asking whether I had any trouble with it at all. No, I said, telling the story of my discovery of such saddles. The less padding the better on a long haul, I told him. So he vowed, to get a new saddle … perhaps in Canberra. After all, he had ridden 2500km with a sore arse so far.
Later, I discovered that Harold is a farm hand, having worked with cattle, sheep and dairy, looking forward to working the wheat harvest on a really large property this spring, He would work, save and ride – a farm-hand with a much larger view of the world.
But we had the most extraordinary meetings. They say: first time happenstance; second time coincidence; third time enemy action. In our case it was happenstance on each occasion. After that first chance meeting just south of Coffs Harbour, we said farewell, for I had an old camping spot in mind on the coast and he wanted to stop by the highway as usual. The next day I did not see him, for I had a spoke repair to make (using a bike shop’s work area while the mechanic was away). The following day, I set out on the road, only to spy a figure pedalling away in the distance. It must be Harold, I thought. Soon enough I caught up and said a quiet greeting. He swore in surprised delight! Again we rode together for that day, talked and urged one another on.
Harold had a love of stopping for anyone we passed, offering his paw, chatting, asking for a photo. Thus it was that we encountered the Taree swaggie, staggering under a load of scavenged possessions, an old radio blaring away. Two teeth showed in the grin of a weather-beaten face as he told us that he had been walking along this stretch of highway for 35 years – a life-time profession, free on the road.
Yet by the end of the day, once again I had a spot on mind and plenty of power in my legs, so while Harold pulled over at a great rest stop for the night, I rode on. I was after a place full of recollections of a former life. I had some vague recollections of a place right by the shore of Myall Lakes, in amongst the ancient Melaleuca trees. The points of reference were a solitary shop by the corner, about five kilometres down a turn in the road, and then a dirt track to the lake. I estimated 130km maximum for that day’s ride in order to get there. So, with power in my legs and a mental will to make the rendezvous, I left Harold behind and pedalled on …and on and on. Somehow my memory has conveniently neglected 20 kilometres of rugged mountain climbs and drops, so much so that I ended up in the dark, lights flickering, traffic pausing in astonishment at a cyclist on a country road in the winter dark. Weary, cold, hungry, I rolled into the place at last.
As I cycled along quiet dirt tracks through the Myall Lakes over the next two (final) days, I wondered why I had not found out his full name, why I had not asked for contact details, why I had not stopped and talked over a camp fire into the (early) night.
Meanwhile I had to contend with a stiff southerly in my face, sand bogs, and a couple of local dingoes. I had only ever met a dingo deep in the wilderness of the north coast, many, many years before. But now, on the outskirts of town (Tea Gardens), I spied two playing about on the side of the road. I rode up; they disappeared; all was silent … until a crashing through the undergrowth announced a dingo in full flight – after me! Adrenalin has the amazing effect of producing a rapid increase in pedal cadence, so my bike kicked and I was off, not keen for a close encounter with a wild dingo. I swear I saw a grin on its face as it receded in my mirror.
Reluctantly, I arrived home after ten days of riding, unpacked the bike and wanting to continue the next day. Perhaps a beer at my local watering hole would be a good idea. Soon enough, I sat in a quiet corner, knocking back a few and reflecting on the ride. Time to go; I rounded a corner and there, sitting with a bunch of people, was Harold. Looks of disbelief on both our faces gave way to delight. We bought more beers, talked and this time gave each other details. I wished I was riding on with him.
Why had I ridden off to those old camping spots, leaving Harold to camp beside the highway in comfortable rest areas? The reason was that I after a number of women; not women to meet me there and then, but women of times past. Each point down the coast seemed to be associated with a different and significant woman.
Thus, one reason I felt so alienated from that stretch between Brisbane and the Gold Coast is that I associate it with some very gloomy years – all for the sake of a woman who initially promised a much happier life. Here were familiar turns, streets and place names, yet they were simultaneously distant and alienating, places I had banished from my memory banks. The lost years: a raw breakup too soon in the past, lonely and far from those I loved, agonising over children who would not talk with me, unfit and smoking as a way to cope. I left the area with a relief similar to one with which I left the relationship itself.
But then I passed into areas associated with precisely the woman I had left for the sake of the one above. Cycling through the massive volcanic caldera of Mt Warning and then down through the Summerland Way, I realised that this was an area for which I had a deep passion in my twenties. Partly due to the appeal of the ‘alternative lifestyle’ still so prominent in the area, partly due to an instable desire to travel and camp, here we – I and a couple of small boys and a wife – would return insatiably, exploring, imagining another life, arguing. That was many, many lives ago.
Surely this was enough emotional processing for a ride. But no, as I came lower down the coast, I realised that I had a mythical place in my sights – way back from my mid-teens. Grassy Head was the place, more than 35 years ago. Slowly I pedalled over the hills of the ‘alternative coast’, only to be blown away by Grassy Head itself: it had hardly changed. The campground had the same layout; one could still light fires (one of which I did with glee); the paths to the beach were the same; the outdoor showers with which to wash off salt and sand in the same place. And the experiences flooded back: there we sat by the fire and talked late; there we walked on the beach at 2am; there we found a cave after a long walk along the beach; there we watched the sun rise over the ocean. I recall her smell even today. I was 15 and she a voluptuous 16. In the midst of it all I popped a spoke that needed repair the next day. I wondered where she is now but decided not to find out. For do not memories like that rely on the fact that the experience is always too short?
So the ride marked a massive shift in sensibilities at the mid-point. Why? Partly it was due to hitting the highway and finding space to enjoy the riding while not watching for traffic all the time. Partly it was due to the chance encounters with Harold, the sore-arse farmer. And partly the women I met in my memory played a large role.
I decided to call it the ‘This Was’ ride. Drawn from Jethro Tull’s first album of the same name, I always recall the last lines of the album sleeve: ‘This was how we were playing then. But things change, don’t they?’
This was the area for which I had a passion in my youth, in my late teens and twenties. This was when I had had a passionate relationship that ended bitterly. This was when the love of my youth and then two little boys would travel together and camp. This was where I had camped as a fifteen year-old and met a woman. But so too now, for I rode and felt all these experiences deeply during yet another period of transition. This was when we were slowly moving from a great old terrace in Newcastle. This was when I would sit on an old balcony in the morning sun with a coffee, watching the street. This was when a PhD and an honours degree and seven books were completed. This was when we had bought an apartment. This was my ride from Brisbane to home.
But things change, don’t they?