First frosts, the crisp end of April, up in the highlands – in short, a chance to feel fresh, enjoy the simple patterns of breaking camp, riding for a day and wondering what the new camp site will be like. Life focuses on a few key elements: enough food and water, the weather, judging the road, and being in touch with the patterns of sun and moon, light and dark, for they determine what you can and cannot do.
Five days via a road I have never ridden before; five days over consistently mountainous territory – from Lithgow, through Rylstone, Bylong and then over Lee’s Pinch and down to Merriwa and Scone in the Hunter Valley. But it takes only a day to find one’s mountain legs and I always take my time, riding within myself – just in case there is need for a 30 km sprint at the end of the day, as once happened in the Netherlands. Tough climbs (such as Cherry Tree Hill at 1100 metres with its snow warning signs), breathtaking drops (especially into the Crowee River Valley on my way to Bylong), bone-chilling frosts, slippery gravel (up the Lee’s Pinch), bone-rattling gravel (after aforesaid climb), coal trucks doing their bit to keep Australia out of the latest recession and peaceful stretches when it was just me, the open sky and sweeping vistas of mountains, trees and valleys.
Above all, it was a time to unwind, think, enjoy another life and imagine that another world is possible. One of my great pleasures when being in the saddle for five or six hours a day is the chance to let my mind roll while my body carries on its discipline.
To a Pub with My Beer
Lithgow was my starting point, the end run of an intercity train from Newcastle via Sydney. Compact, warm and ornate workers cottages, the bright yellow/orange tops that have replaced the old ‘blue collar’ as the dominant style of workers’ clothing, and the marks of boom and bust are part of the Lithgow feel. As is the crispness of the air, for this is a mountain town, built on the edge of the Blue Mountains and unfolding into the tablelands since that is where the coal was first found. For some reason the town has always had a deep appeal to me, so I lingered long, fiddling with my bike, although I was ably assisted by a German cyclist and a rotund man in leather jacket and beret. Both accosted me the moment I walked out of the railway station.
Actually, the round man jumped on me first, treating me like a close friend, talking about running a bicycle shop in Sydney many years ago (the first dedicated touring shop, he claimed), of rides he had done, of Lithgow. By the time I had put aside my scepticism – he simply did not look he had been on a bike ever, but he sure knew a lot about them – the old German cyclist turned up, pastry stuck to his face from the feed he has just enjoyed. He was on his last day after 6000 km in Australia, having started in Perth a few months ago. A dedicated camper – wherever and whenever – he was enjoying the crisp mountain air and precipitous rides, since he was from Baden in southern Germany. But he had that tell-tale strange feature of long-distance cyclists: each of us carries something unnecessary, at least in the eyes of other riders. His were the old number plates he found on the side of the road. At home, he said, I have a whole shed wall covered with number plates from around the world. When people come over, I can tell them where I found each one. Only after a few beers, I thought to myself.
Eventually I donned gloves and pedalled out of town, travelling via Portland, where the famous cement factory that built Sydney and gave us ‘Portland Cement’ was now a ruin. Like other towns hereabouts – Kandos and Lithgow around coal mines or Wallerawang around a power station, such towns were caught between the whim of industry and the desire to make a home. But when the industry closes for the sake of cheaper operations elsewhere, as at Portland, some of those who have made a home cling on – while the factory becomes a ruin, the houses becomes chipped and rusty and the cars old and beaten.
Frost was threatening by the time I arrived in Cullen Bullen and the pub looked warm and cosy – and it had alcohol-free beer (a must in my mature years …) – so I opted for a simple room and a reflective evening on the porch, wondering what it is like to live in a village with 198 inhabitants. And I wondered how a village that size could support a pub, for there were a handful of patrons that evening, nursing beers and crowded by a raging fire.
After Cullen Bullen, I followed an ancient track from the central tablelands to the upper Hunter Valley, a track that was used by Aborigines way before Europeans even thought about Australia, and then by those Europeans when they chased the Aborigines out. It veered away from the road north and went through to Rylstone, with its curious mix of old country town and just emerging trendy place to visit and/or live.
Warty Caretakers and Big-Gutted Czechs
The ‘caravan park’ was really a handkerchief of land, perched on the edge of a long valley. But here were the grey nomads, creaking while they set up their vans, turning handles, hobbling about, comparing notes, offering me hot water for tea, and seeming to have all the time in the world to talk. In between their chatter, I eventually managed to pitch my tent, but not before two Czech bushies turned up in a massive 4-wheel drive. One had a bushy grey ponytail and big gut, the other a bushy black moustache and a big gut. Both pulled out cans of beer, rolled smokes and revived themselves after the long drive before setting up their sleeping quarters. A beer was offered, many times, but as I turned it down, I learned that they were on their way back to Adelaide, the one with the moustache a visitor from the Czech Republic (he gestured to whole time, since my Czech isn’t the best and his English needed work), and the one with the ponytail an enthusiastic immigrant who made the most of the bush. As soon as camp was made, they asked Terry where the pub was.
Terry – the fill-in caretaker, resident in a van and ute. He was a warty, wrinkled, chatty cyclist from way back. A fire? ‘No worries. The wood is here, the grate there. It’ll be cold tonight, but I guess you have the gear. I used to cycle in my Melbourne days. A ride to Geelong and back and then a few laps around Albert Park. No more, though. Those were the days …’ What a former, very fit cyclist from Melbourne was doing in the caravan park at Rylstone was beyond me, but it didn’t stop me imagining a full and varied life. Finally alone on this cold night, I lit a fire and looked out over the valley.
Thankfully, I could also light a fire at the magical Bylong, which was my next stop after a glorious ride over the hill and through the Crowee River Valley. The spot was free, by the show ground and store and church, maintained by the community. I arrived early, relaxed, read, poked around the church and cemetery, lit a fire and wondered: why are areas like Bylong not socialist? There is a strong communal ethos, a sense that everyone contributes to communal projects without pay (e.g. the upkeep of the common area), intimate knowledge of one another and a hard life at times. I guess they are, in that curious tradition of agrarian socialism. By then I was deep in my sleeping bag, enjoying one of those endless, 11-hour sleeps that naturally happen while out riding.
Over Lee’s Pinch and the Woman of the Road
I knew the ride was coming too quickly to a close as I slipped up to Lee’s Pinch on the fourth day, but the road was quiet enough to have to myself, even when the bitumen returned for the stunning run into tiny Merriwa – a town that works overtime to attract people, but has lost out to the larger centres thereabouts. At the top of the pinch, with a pause for a fire and billy of tea by the lookout, a motorcyclist caught up with me.
‘I followed your tracks all the way up’, he said. ‘I thought to myself: that must be some tenacious bugger coming up that climb’.
But he didn’t stay for lunch, climbing back on his bike in full winter gear to rattle his aging bones on the next stretch.
My last day pushed from tiny Merriwa to horse-town, Scone, home of a multi-billion international horse-breeding business. It was also the end of a rail-motor run from Newcastle and I was aiming to catch that rail-motor. The ride was full of climbs and drops and legs that were really feeling like they wanted to go much, much further. It was also full of empty houses in vast fields. Why is it that here houses are virtually for the taking, along with a little repair, while in the cities they cost well over half a million dollars. What a wonderful economic system capitalism is.
But as I began the long, warm-up climb out of Merriwa, I met a woman of about 60 walking along the side of the road – as you do about 10 km out of town.
‘I don’t know how you manage that’, she said. ‘riding so far and long with everything you need’.
‘I just take my time’, I said in wise reply. ‘That way the pain is less’.
‘I bet you’d give [conservative leader of the federal opposition] Tony Abbott a run for his money’, she said.
‘God, I hope so’, I said.
Scone was, well, Scone. A moneyed country town, aimless young people in the park, horses trotting along the main street, a tiny railway station in the late sun as I awaited the rail-motor. The driver with a permanent limp welcomed me aboard and I was on my way home.
What do you think about on a ride? For someone who spends most days in disciplined and focused thought, it is a holiday just to let the mind tumble about in its own way, making connections, running off where it will. With five to six hours in the saddle each day, long stops for a billy of tea, and cool nights beside a fire, the opportunity to let my mind do its relaxed thing is almost endless.
Impossible to recite them all, from the mundane ‘shit, I have to pack a wet tent’ to romping sexual fantasies, from trying to decide between beans-and-tuna or ryebread-and-cream-cheese for dinner to extensive arguments with authority figures (the latter usually happens when I get tired in the later part of the ride). But you do start to follow some lines of thought, perhaps for a couple of days at a time.
One of those lines on this ride concerned plans for a really long ride. Usually around the fourth or fifth day, when the concerns of home have been crunched away with a few thousand revolutions of the pedals, I begin to plan seriously and at length for that ride around Australia: 20,000 km, a year of taking it easy, life simplified to food, shelter, weather and the smooth running of the bicycle. In fact, I wonder about staying on the bike indefinitely, living this way for as long as I am able.
And at about the same time on a ride, one starts joking with the animals.
To the horses galloping up to say hello: ‘don’t you guys worry about snakes in the long grass?’
To the bull: ‘bad hump on the neck there, dude!’
Madness? Freedom? A gradual relaxing of the strictures of civilised life? All of the above.
Another thought track was really the effect of bodily memory. That peculiar chill in the early morning air that can be found only on Australian highlands, along with the rolling landscape, yellow grass and scattered trees, viscerally evoked two places I had lived, once as a teenager and one as an adult: Tumbarumba in the foothills of the Snowy Mountains and Armidale on the New England tableland; both at the same elevation (about 900m), both with frosty winters and occasional snow. One I enjoyed, the other not so much; but in both cases I was pleased to be on my way. In fact, Rylstone reminded me of Tumbarumba, with its one block main street, halfway between fading rural town and trendy retreat, between dissolute and aimless youth – epitomised in the tattooed leg and beer in hand in the back seat of the car I passed – and cafes for those accustomed to such things in the cities from which they had come.
But the overwhelming sense on this ride was one of passing. My dead father, a constant companion on my rides, was at the centre of that, but so was an impending sea voyage to Europe. Initially I went back in memory tracks to 1988, before I left to live in Canada for more than three years, before I had been overseas at all. Then I sensed the imminent passing, longingly enjoying the life that soon would slip away – the church where I worked, my sense of the Australian bush, my view of Australia and the world, all of which was really the feel of life here for one who had never been overseas. But then all that did pass as it was then and a whole new world opened up. I knew something was passing and yet the new discoveries are simply ones I would not relinquish for a moment.
That tension between the drag of home (even the longing look back) and the pull of the road is like a divorce, in which a life irrevocably passes, in which one wonders at times whether it was worth the cost, but which would not make you who you are now. Or it is like the passage from childhood to adulthood (constructed though those categories are). In the face of a growing sense of changes imminent come the assertions that childhood passions will be held dearly, that one will not be like the older brother or sister who gives up on the pleasures of play, on the love of animals, on the desire to be a vet, on a whole view of the world. But the very assertion of a desire to hold to this world is a sign that it is passing.
Ultimately death is like that too, I suspect …