At 38 degrees Celsius, bitumen begins to melt. Shiny black bubbles, even long strips of molten bitumen appear. It sticks to my tyres; flecks fly onto the frame of my bicycle. The overheated bitumen sucks my tyres and slows their roll. Pedalling becomes more tiresome, or at least I imagine it so.
So it was for most of the 450 kilometres from an old home of many years ago to my new one, from Armidale to the northwest to Newcastle bythe coast. I had wanted to do this ride for so long, but at last my chance came – a few days free in the late summer of 2014-2015.I packed the bicycle into a box and caught the train – really a rail motor – to Armidale.
The rail line had been restored just as I was aboutto leave the place so many years ago, but I had never had the opportunity to travel along the old tracks made anew. I was mesmerised by the familiarity of the new on old, seeing the lie of a land I had once known well from a new perspective.
Caravan of Dogs
In Armidale, it was not yet hot, at least not hot enough to melt bitumen. The town sits 1,000 metres above sea level, so while the sun can burn you quickly in summer, days are mild and nights fresh. I found myself in a camp ground by Dumaresq Creek – named after some long-forgotten Frenchman who happened find himself in these parts, far from home. Or rather, I found myself in a camp ground full of dogs and their extraordinary owners. Groomed, puffed, buffed and pampered, the dogs had their own caravans, tables and chairs and cutlery sets. Their owners lived in the dog kennels. They continued to arrive as I desperately searched for a campsite, away from the yelping, growling and barking – and that was just the owners. I thought I had found such a campsite, by a pond on some lovely grass past a sign that said, ‘no camping’. But soon enough the dogs came by one after another, walking their owners in the evening before putting them to bed.
I woke to a veritable dog heaven, as combs and sprays and powder prepared the dogs for their day on show. But it was not heaven for me, so broke camp early and hit the road. On my way out of town, up the long hill to the south, my muscles slowly became accustomed once again to being on a bicycle. And the bodily memories flooded my senses. Here was the pre-school my older daughter first attended and began learning to read; here was the primary school my two boys attended for a couple of years; here was the park where we played baseball and some cricket; here was the running track I traced out on a daily basis, as my fix after giving up smoking; here was the church we attended on a weekly basis; and here was the weatherboard house where we lived, much the same except for two grand pine trees in the front yard. I had forgotten about the trees, which I had bought at a school fete more than two decades ago. Slow growers, I was told, but long-lived. They stunned me, a visible sign of my former presence here. They will be there for many decades to come.
Moonbi Chook to Tamworth
The day passed, at a gentle pace and with the wind on my back, through the undulating New England plateau. At the 80 kilometre mark, I was sorely tempted to stop by the creek at Bendemeer. A simple camping area surrounded the only establishment in the village, which was simultaneously shop, post office, petrol station, library, pub, medical surgery and international research station. But I had time on my hands, so with a long look back I pointed my front wheel towards Tamworth, almost 40 more kilometres down the road. ‘Down’ was the operative word, for soon enough I hit the Moonbi ‘Hills’.
In the direction I was headed, the near-vertical drop of the ‘hills’ requires emergency stopping beds for out-of-control trucks, buses and bicycles. I dared not look at the speedometer on my handle-bars, for I was sure that I was breaking the speed limit.
Suddenly Moonbi was upon me. Moonbi! Here is the famous ‘Moonbi Chook’, I recalled at the last minute. I dragged on the brakes and pulled up, for I had to see whether the chook was still on its perch. Sure enough, at the only park in town, the chook stands as it has always done. A massive angular construction rearing into the sky, it attempts to rival the big peach, the big prawn or even the big mosquito in northern NSW. I sat beneath its shade for a while, wary of a possible giant egg dropping out its rear end. Someone had given the Moonbi Chook a new coat of paint, so it could survey its demesne over the slopes of Moonbi. And that demesne incorporated thousands upon thousands of chickens, who vastly outnumbered the human beings hereabouts.
Tamworth at last, town of the Country Music Festival, with the massive golden guitar (no rival for the Moonbi Chook!), guitar-shaped swimming pools, guitar-shaped houses. Hell, even the town is designed in a guitar shape, around which the hoons in their machines roar around endlessly. For some reason, I skipped the strumming glories of Tamworth, keen instead on a shower, food and a long sleep.
Sticky Tyres to Murrurundi
By next morning, the heat of the day was upon me early. Soon enough it would top 42 degrees, and the ride out of Tamworth through the Goonoo Goonoo Plains was marked by the regular ‘click, click, click’ of popping globules of molten bitumen. As if the energy-sapping heat was not enough, I met two gut-busting mountain ranges. They divide the Goonoo Goonoo Plains from the Liverpool Plains and the latter from the Hunter Valley. This was not supposed to be, I thought. The ride was meant to be a gentle downhill affair, all the way from Armidale to Newcastle. Instead, I found myself in granny gear for a final ten kilometre climb, tyres dragging in the molten bitumen.
Murrurundi was a blessed relief, especially after the drop out of the range into town. Pausing at the pub to gain my bearings, I watched warily a beaten up car, with two men inside smoking and drinking beers. More hoons, I thought, with time on their hands. The doors opened and they stepped out, only to reveal a couple of old men, somewhere in their seventies. Once a hoon, always a hoon.
The last time I had stopped for a night in Murrurundi, I was 16, on one of my last camping trips with my parents, brothers and sister. Then we had camped by the showground, fleeing cyclonic weather. My father had found a tick on his head, on the first occasion of removing his hat for over four weeks. While he went in search of a doctor to remove the tick, we packed the car with all the camping gear – a glorious feeing, since he always reserved the right to pack everything on his own, since only he knew the best way.
These days, camping was no longer allowed at the showground, so I found the only camping area in town. Now I really felt in touch with another dimension of life. My only concerns were a good spot for the tent, cleaning the bicycle, a shower to clean off the sweat of the day, and some food. But at the campers kitchen, I happened upon the evening ‘Happy Hour’. At least four campers seemed to be happy on this occasion. Grey nomads: they drank beers, talked of their ailments (from gout to heart disease), of places visited, of vans and prices and places they might visit on their endless desire to make the most of the few years they had left.
Molten Road to a Singleton Drama
The next day was the hottest I have ever ridden: 45 degrees at the peak. Heat shimmered from the road, sweat dried the moment it appeared, and I arrived completely busted. In a slightly dazed state, I had ridden 120 kilometres from Murrurundi to Singleton. I have a curious knack of arriving in Singleton on a bicycle in a busted state. The town seems to have that strange effect on me.
But the drama that unfolded at the caravan park more than compensated. As I made my way lustily through two family-sized pizzas, the bikie next door told me his life story. Smoke in one hand and beer in another, he was watering his mother’s garden. He had passed me on the road into town and thought I was a complete idiot at the time for being out on such a day. His mother was a permanent at the park. She clearly wore the toughness of life, aware of decisions made at crucial junctures, now living alone, but with a son who did his best to help. He found that such help also entailed the imbibing of copious amounts of both legal and illegal substances, so that by late evening he was in a state of loving the universe.
Meanwhile, at the campers’ kitchen, the real drama was unfolding. A young girl of 14 had disappeared with a man in his twenties. She had been under the care of her grandparents, who lived at the park. Soon, the girl’s angry and concerned mother appeared, having just finished her nursing shift. Phones rang, the man’s mother appeared, more phones rang. Eventually, the girl returned, only to be roundly told off by her mother and grounded for a few weeks. The young man was nowhere to be seen, although his voluminous mother did her best to apologise. The possibility of another teenage pregnancy was clearly on everyone’s minds.
I and the grandfather in his stained white singlet talked politics. Instinctually Labor, he could not stand the current conservative government and sincerely hoped the prime minister’s days were numbered – ‘before he ruins the country!’ The inebriated bikie vehemently agreed, so we stood for a while cursing the rich ruling class who had no concern for the everyday lives of people who do it tough. I was inspired: there it was, the innate Left of the lower working class. Yet the party that has their allegiance shows little enough attention to their concerns.
By morning I realised that I should have taken a rest day. Instead, I broke camp and mounted the bike for one more day. I will take it easy, I thought, since it will be a short day’s ride. In this case, ‘short’ meant 97 kilometres. As for taking it easy … it was at least cooler, but that was only because I had a gale-force headwind. But much of the ride was along a new section of expressway. Such types of road may seem like the last type of ride a bicycle tourer might choose. Far better, is it not, to find lonely country roads, single lanes meandering through farms and national parks? But an expressway seems to draw me, with its wide shoulder, gentle gradients and rest areas where I can switch off and think.
This piece of road intrigued me more than most. I cursed the sheer expense, running into the billions. I thought of many better projects upon which the government money might be spent. Yet I was intrigued by the state-of-the-art engineering and especially by the way the environment around the expressway actually seemed to be improved. Water courses had been cleaned and treated with natural features to ensure their health. Animal crossings abounded, both under the road and over it. Regular rope lattices were strung across the expressway to enable possums to cross. And the whole road had been developed and planned with extensive consultation with the local Awabakal people. Song lines – ancient maps – were evoked, features named for important local animals, thousands of artefacts found and given to the people, and the abundant sacred sites in the nearby hills had been carefully noted and skirted.
The ride remained with me for days afterwards. My body reminded me of the pain and thrill at being taken to the edge of my endurance. But my mind remained longer on the ride, pondering the innate Left of the lower working class and Marx’s insight that human beings have always been part of and engaged with nature and land in the process of labour.