Rusting tractor hulks, ragged pieces of corrugated iron, piles of rotting timber, discarded fencing material, weeds clinging to edges of muddy car tracks, paint not even a faint memory on the farmhouse walls, a shed leaning alarmingly, collapsed in one corner, a gate hanging sadly from one hinge. A messy farmyard.
Sure enough, a dog pack is lazing about the yard and veranda. And it is waiting for me, as I sweat and grunt on a long climb in granny gear with a loaded bicycle. My speed is about 6km/h; theirs will shortly be 30 km/h.
On long bicycle tours on quiet Australian roads, I have become an expert at dog divination, knowing full well that all farms have dogs. The key question becomes: is it a tidy place or a messy one? If tidy, the chances are the dogs are tied-up and well-trained, preferring to herd sheep or cattle rather than weary cyclists. If untidy, the dogs roam unleashed, bored and dying to chase something.
Yet even dogs on a chase behave differently. Some simply try to outrun me, racing along madly about 20 metres away, tongue hanging out, a bark of pure pleasure escaping their throats. Some are all bark and no bite, happy to raise a hell of a din, so much so that no energy is left to chase. Some are more devious, barking a clear message for their buddies down the road: ‘sucker of a cyclist on the way; get ready for some fun’. Having heard the message, some growl and yelp, before launching themselves onto the road and giving chase. But at least I have fore-warning, fully aware that a sharp-toothed canine is waiting to welcome me into his territory.
But some are wilier still, holding fire until they can see the whites of my eyes, or at least the date of my arse. With a wicked grin, they slip silently onto the road, zeroing in on their target on soft pads until they are within snapping distance of a foot. An earth-shattering howl crushes the silence, or at least my eardrums, since it feels as though this cunning canine has let rip centimetres from my ears. There is but one beneficial effect of this move: the adrenalin rush is so hugely sudden that my cadence and speed suddenly increase in a superhuman fashion. 6 km/h becomes 35 km/h in seconds, even on a mountain and even with a loaded bike.
Yet this Olympic feat is not enough to dissuade the most eager of dogs. This elite corps, made up of fearless daredevils, surrounds me and snaps at my heels, tyres, pannier straps, legs, pedals – with a bloodlust in their eyes that says, ‘Your throat looks delicious!’ At that moment I wonder what possessed me to ride on ‘quiet’ country roads. I curse the fact that I do not have bag of stones to hurl at these wild beasts, or a cudgel to beat them expertly to a pulp, or a massive cannon that fires grapeshot. And I suddenly yearn for a busy highway, full of trucks thundering past … which is why I sought out this ‘peaceful’ back-road in the first place.