The bicycle’s invitation is too strong and insistent: before I know it I am off pedalling again for a few days in the bush. It is early April, the weather steady, wind at my back, the cares of this world dumped soon enough. Nothing like hours on a bicycle, or for that matter sitting by a campfire, to clear the head, let your mind freely associate (as the subconscious does its work), to gain a sense once again of another way of being.
The winds are from the south-east; I decide to reverse the direction of the ride so they are on my back. My route takes me into the Watagan Mountains out the back of Newcastle, and then on along the old convict road to Wollombi, through to Broke and its wineries, Denman’s farms, Muswellbrook’s coal mines, and the horse studs of Scone. Too short of course, but time passes slowly when you enjoy every moment.
I ride through land that struggles for identity, between aboriginal heritage areas, cattle stations, wineries, coal mines, and the increasing pressure to ‘frack’ for gas and extract oil from shale. Conservative farmers become politically active and protest, throwing up banners and leading angry marches. Abandoned shacks and rust-holed water tanks stand on the edges of vast open-cut coal mines. Wineries with their bourgie clientele sit cheek-by-jowl with working-class mining towns at the foothills of the mountains. And the bush tries to hold its own against forces that would encroach. In all this, the paradox is that aboriginal areas are identified and protected through the mining EPAs – not from the pastoralists and vignerons.
But it is my valley, my upper Hunter.
The endless subspecies of homo sapiens sapiens never cease to amaze me, and, on the intensely felt experiences of a ride, they appear in many shapes and sizes. It may be a husky-voiced barmaid at a pub and the cerebral-palsy regular. It may be the grey nomads at a camping spot (Broke) by the river. They have been long on the road: quick set-up of camp, a walk, chat, early bed and up before dawn. Over they come to talk, he with a gold tooth in a tanned face and a shifty grin; she a beauty in her elder years.
Later I stop to light a fire and boil a billy along a back road and opposite a weathered shack. Before long an ancient rust-bucket puffs and pants down the driveway and a man emerges to stare. It is not so much the sagging gut and man-boobs in the filthy blue t-shirt that draw my gaze, as the sagging jowls, no-chin and gaping mouth. I call a greeting across the road; he grunts back. With visions of unmentionable redneck amusements visited upon passing cyclists, I hurriedly finish my tea and am on my way.
Then there are the dogs. Every farm has one or more. Most are working dogs, out with the cattle by day, exhausted by night. But not all, for there is always an odd dog, lazing about, bored and unchained. What could be better than chasing a lone cyclist? So it was on a quiet stretch of road out the back of Denman. Three dogs; three snarling chases; three sprints at over 40 km/h. Thankfully, I had a strong tailwind, but at times I really wish I had a gun. What better way to get the adrenalin pumping and the kilometres to fly past?
At Wollombi I took a crap beneath a new bridge, only to have a kangaroo bound out of the bush nearby.
Human beings and their others are endlessly fascinating, but I take great pleasure in my own company. Only then do I begin to sense another way of being. But what draws me onto that sense, into a way that I leave reluctantly?
Is it the overhanging tree, away from the road, shading an open space where I boil a billy? A few twigs are all it takes to heat a little water. So I rest the bike and my legs, gather the twigs, fill the billy and crouch over the small fire while it boils. I sip the tea while the fire dies down, looking out over the bush, or perhaps across the mountains and valleys if I have just completed a climb, or perhaps down the road I still have to ride.
Is it the happenstance camping spot, amongst some trees and by a lookout over my valley? Once found, I come here often, since few know of it. An old fireplace cooks my meals and keeps me warm on a chilly night. Water is a trickle, but enough for a quick wash and for cooking. The tent sits expectantly, beckoning me inside, to stretch in a warm sleeping bag and sleep for long hours (often more than ten when I am riding). The quiet sounds of the bush remind me that it is full of life – ants, bugs, snakes, wallabies, birds, goannas, not to mention a good number of ferals as well. Feng shui the Chinese call it, the geomancy of wind-water. Translated, it is a way of expressing the inexpressible, the certain feel that a place gives you, the way you sigh with pleasure on arrival, nodding quietly to yourself.
Is it the sitting long by a slow fire? Like a television, a fire at night draws and holds one’s gaze for hours. But television has really usurped the place of the fire, except that television numbs the minds, while a fire triggers all manner of thoughts. So the mind can tumble, associate, reconnect … and draw one into the memory tracks. Singular times that are life-changing: an unexpected person or place that leaves its mark forever; a tough time that leaves you wiser rather than bitter (hopefully); people whom you are deeply glad to have met, others you wish you had never met at all; a voyage to distant lands never seen before; a weeks-long cycle ride through one’s ancestral home … Before the embers fade, I am always fast asleep in my tent.
Is it the sharpness of bodily memory when the body is engaged in the same actions as when those memories were laid down? When cycling, I recall viscerally turns, climbs, roads, forests, plains, and towns from earlier rides. It may be the weary crawl into town, in sodden clothes and with numbed feet, after a climb into the ranges, or perhaps the recall triggered by that turn – the one that begins the best stretch of road in the world. It may be the ride into a camping spot, when the whole layout in all its detail is already clearly in my mind, or perhaps the magnificent old pine overlooking a ploughed field, which evokes Ernst Bloch’s utopian image of the yellow light in a farmhouse across the ploughed field at night.
Is it the fact that all I need in the world may be packed into two modest rear panniers on a bicycle? Tent, sleeping bag, air mat, clothes, book, maintenance tools, spares, water bottles, eating implements and food – not so much, really. I guess if you can’t carry it with you easily, it isn’t worth lugging along.
As Marshall Sahlins once said: ‘There are after all two roads to satisfaction, to reducing the gap between means and ends: producing much or desiring little’.