It was a ride long on desire and hope, but until now short of realisation: to make my way through the mountains and wilderness from Newcastle to Sydney. Many options are open for such a ride, closer to the coast and closer to the main roads. But they are often noisy and busy, full of trucks and cars in their rush, drivers and passengers craning forward to destinations that cannot come quickly enough.
I sought the quiet way, along winding roads, up and down mountains, seeking isolated places to camp where my only companions were cold water and a fire. The route (320 km) took me west into the Watagan Mountains, the Yengo wilderness and then down via the Hawkesbury River. Parts would include the Great North Road, built by slave (convict) labour in the 1830s, the first road in the colony between Sydney and the Hunter Valley. Parts would take me along rough, twisting dirt tracks, and parts up steep climbs and whooping drops.
As a result, the ride is full of unexpected, solitary and stunning places in the bush. They begin with Hunter Lookout, high on a cliff in the Watagans. Its well-nigh utopian appeal increases with each pedal of a tough, tough ride on the first day, especially since I had hit the road with not many kilometres in my legs. Towards the end of the seemingly endless concertina of climbs, I haul my bike – with camping gear, clothes, food and even a book – up a few kilometres of precipitous dirt track.
My arms may have been dislocated, my knees grazed from slipping in the rough gravel at impossible angles, some vital parts may have suffered permanent injury, but it is always worth it. High up on a cliff edge, your eye is irresistibly drawn to the valley and mountains spread out below. My valley, the mighty Hunter Valley with its deep ranges on either side, its coal mines with some of the highest grade coal in the world, its horse studs, dairy and beef cattle farms, alternative farmers and stunning wilderness. I pause long to watch the subtle changes in the light as the sun set – and then have to pitch camp in fading light.
Or Mogo Creek in the Yengo Wilderness, my stop for the next night. Externally, there is nothing stunning about this place: it is a nondescript little corner in the bush, sitting on a saddle between two mountains. Yet each time I arrive and pause, drinking in the spot. Is it the lie of the land, gently running down to a simple shelter? Is it the shelter itself, evoking single room cabins with a chimney rising up from the fireplace – for heating and warmth? Is it the fact that I will soon share the space with bush wallabies quietly coming out for their evening feed? Is it the appeal of a simple life, far away from the madding crowd, from internet and phones, the rush of vehicles, people unquestionably tied to the deadening routine of work and leisure? Or is it the layers of memory that the place evokes?
An alternative to Mogo is The Basin, barely a dozen kilometres down the road – the operative word being ‘down’. Seven kilometres of precipitous dirt, threatening to send one sliding off the edge at any moment, hands cramping from the grip on smoking brakes. Go in summer or autumn and the chance is high that walkers or trail-bikers will also be there. Go in winter and the place is your own. Luxuries include pit toilets and very, very fresh water from the tank. As the winter light fades, I move quickly: tent up, bike wiped down, a brief wash, layers of winter wool, firewood gathered in the last glimmer of light, a billy on. And just when the meal is finally ready, which I eat huddling close to the fire, I jump and almost lose the entire meal. Barely 30cm away a possum sits and stares at me. No amount of yelling (from fright) sends it packing. It simply looks at me as if to say: who the hell are you and what are you doing here? It would keep me company for the next few hours.
Or Kulnura Café, a tumbling stop beside the road on the next day’s ride. Each time I think, nah, I have lunch with me; I can stop down the road. But each time my front tyre gains a mind of its own and, no matter how much I try to pull the other way, it turns into the cafe. The place is run by a 30-something couple of Chinese background with the broadest Aussie accents. And they make some of the best pies, sausage rolls and quiches in the universe. Lamb, beef and chicken are standards, but you also find chicken, camembert and cranberry, or curried spinach, or rabbit sausage rolls, or … I am not the only one who appreciates this extraordinary place. Ageing bikies stop here in swarms, with their limps, grey beards and massive guts designed the rest snugly on the bike petrol tank – and that’s just the women. Here too are tradies, truckies, road gangs and anyone with half an excuse. The massive feed here usually keeps me fuelled for the rest of the day.
My last night finds a rare corner closer to Sydney – Mill Creek in Dharug National Park. I was last here in a beaten-up Morris Major Elite in 1979. It was my first camping trip on my own, although my parents turned up to spoil the fun. Tall trees in the mist, a fire in the dusk, a toughening wash beside the water tank, a long read by torchlight. Mill Creek can be stinking hot with swarms of mosquitoes in mid-summer, for it sits deep in a precipitous sandstone valley that traps the summer heat. But in the cooler months it is a great place that attracts few – which suits me fine.
What is the daily pattern like on days of long riding, of cycling for hours on end? Surprisingly, the time in the saddle is restricted to perhaps five or six hours. I ride within myself – usually – saving my legs for the inevitable long climbs in granny gear. My preference is to take frequent breaks, whether for a piss, a billy of tea, a massive feed, a photograph, a pause for a view or a quirky item on the side of the road. Either end of the day is taken up with setting up and breaking camp. With the few items I carry – all contained in two panniers – the process is simple enough: one-person tent, self-inflating airbed, sleeping-bag, billy, food and book out, torch, pocket knife in pockets, camera at the ready. Breaking camp takes a little longer, for each item has its snug corner in which to be packed. All the while my mind tumbles and I am happy to let it do so. Annoyances processed, memories evoked, passions expressed, plans hatched, all connected via freewheeling word association that enable a vital unwinding and reorientation.
Summer may have its sweat, heat and flies. But winter has its own challenges apart from the shorter periods of daylight, among which the wash is the most perversely enjoyable. Why? All I ever have is a cup and an unreliable supply of what feels like melt-water. Quickly and bracingly I splash water all over myself – gasping and yodelling in a curious chorus for the animals about (no humans interrupt my ablutions). The key is to get wet and soaped up quickly, for then there is no going back. The soap must be rinsed off carefully with a good number of cups of this freezing substance. They become easier to bear, although I am not sure whether that is due to my increasing toughness or the fact that my body is going into hypothermic mode, focussing blood and warmth in the core regions and leaving the peripherals to fend for themselves. The family jewels certainly think so, doing their best to retract as far as possible.
But the bulk of the day is taken up with sleep. The early sunsets of winter are a blessing, for with bone weariness from the ride the warm sleeping bag in the tent seduces me soon enough. On this ride I was in bed by 7 pm and fell asleep instantly. The catch was that I had finally acquired a decent sleeping bag – after many decades of stinginess and ineffective pretenders. Expecting a cold night and familiar with my ancient sleeping bag, I dressed warmly before zipping myself up – only to wake up covered with sweat a couple of hours later. Adjustments, fine-tuning, stripping naked, leaving the zip half undone, I finally acclimatised to my first real sleeping bag that would actually keep me warm and toasty on a cold night. And it packs into a tiny ball for the bike panniers. Eleven hours later I woke at first light and busting to get on the road.
What keeps me cycling, seeking out long-haul rides in rugged mountains? All of the above would count, but ultimately it is the search for the glorious stretch of road, what may be called the Road Absolute. A good, steep climb, a whooping downhill, a long straight that disappears into the horizon … My legs feel fresh and powerful, the bike sleek and smooth, the sun is on my shoulder, a breeze cools my face and the bush includes me as one its own. Yet all these fade into the background in light of the total absorption of such moments, a deeply felt experience that makes one forget the crappy roads full of traffic and cuts away the dross and façade of what passes for ‘normal’ life.
This route has a good number of these stretches of road – a rare feature, since most long hauls have but one or two. Some are always so, such as the run from Bucketty to Kulnura. The road is hilly, the cars are few, the trees enclose you, the wilderness absorbs you. To the right are glimpses of Mt. Yengo, as important to the coastal aborigines in these parts as Uluru is to the central tribes. Whenever I see its flat top – where Biame leapt to the heavens after his stretch of creativity – I offer a small prayer. I am an ecumenist, after all.
Another such stretch is the River Road, from Wiseman’s Ferry to Sackville. An undulating run of some 40 km, it follows the twists of the Hawkesbury River upstream. Long loops of the river greet me at a turn, rocky sandstone overhangs threaten to drop on me at any moment, hairpins and sharps climbs then seek to scale another of these outcrops. On this road, I realise its iconic status only after crossing the ferry at Sackville and meeting the traffic on its run to Sydney.
Occasionally these roads depend far more on my frame of mind and the day itself. The others may be as enjoyable in stinking summer heat or driving winter rains, but the Sandy Creek Road earlier on the ride can vary. I have ridden it in oppressive heat, hit my wall on it and been buzzed by weekend traffic. But on this day, the road sings to me, the spokes spin in the morning light, the villages roll by, and 50 km is done before I realise.
These moments are summed up by one of those chance meetings between cyclists. I meet a couple of 60-something riders out for a day and I ask them whether the ferry down the road a little is running.
‘It should be running today’, says one of them. ‘Its maintenance day is the first Wednesday of the month’.
‘What day is it? I ask.
‘Fantastic!’ Says the other. ‘That’s a happy cyclist. The sun is shining and he doesn’t know what day it is …’
Old Roads, Old Memories
Unlike other rides, this one follows old roads, with layers of old memories. I have ridden and driven sections of it in different ways for three decades, although I have never ridden the full route as I did now. There I had raced a one-time riding buddy, more than a decade ago, up a steep hill. There I camped with a large and noisy gathering of young children, ex-wife who tolerated camping at best, and not-so-old parents. There I stopped for a long and slow cigar. There I camped for the first time on my own after a driving a beaten up car all day. There I rode on the day before one of my sons almost died in a house fire. There is the winery (Tizzana) where a horde of cyclists descended for a massive feed after a frisky spring ride. There my father used to drive, on a twisting, quiet ride on their way to ‘little England’ (Mt. Wilson) in the Blue Mountains. And there is the turn to the place where my heart is often drawn no matter where I have been in the world.
As day follows day, the question of memory keeps returning. Is it a sense of ‘things change, don’t they’? Or is it a sense of passing, one that anticipates the passing of the future as much as the past? I am following the tracks of life of more than a decade ago, intensely felt and experienced at the time. Do I miss that time, that life, with its highs and lows? So much has happened in the long years since, so that it really feels like two or three lives ago. Do I wish to return to it? Do I lament a better life past? None of these questions touches on the core of my response. Instead, it is the intense desire to recall the way I felt then, the immediacy of life at an everyday level. In the effort to recall those senses and experiences, I recognise the welcome distance from those earlier lives, along with the complex pleasures of memory itself.