The Molten Bitumen Ride

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.2015 February 015 (320x240)

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.

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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’.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Headwind Home

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.

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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.

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Old Ghosts

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His lame leg is stiff and twisted awkwardly at the ankle, the belated effect of childhood polio. The grey moustache bristles with the effort of pitching the worn tent. The lean frame bends stiffly at the waist as he works in the pegs and poles. But he has done it so many times before and insists on doing it mostly by himself. My youngest daughter, his favourite grandchild, assists him with tenderness and adoration – holding a rope here, a peg there.

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I had not expected to meet him here, an old ghost who had once frequented these parts. Yet here he is; his presence palpable as I pitch my tent on the same spot. Some twenty years ago, he had come here eagerly along with my mother. They were keen to take time with their grandchildren, sharing a love of camping in the bush. Since then he had died and I have become used to not thinking of him for long stretches of time. But then he returns, unexpectedly.

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Or perhaps I should have expected it, for this is one of my favourite places in the world – in the Yengo Wilderness. The long day on the bicycle, or two at a more reasonable pace, is full of anticipation. The dirt track for the last six kilometres even more so.

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A last turn of the track and I glimpse the simple shelter on a nondescript shoulder of the ridge. Around the small clearing the trees and wallabies and pademelons and goannas quietly carry on as they have always done. Nothing much has changed for two decades, if not much, much longer. Here one can be entirely removed from the world and get in touch with a far better one.

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While I pitch the tent, gather wood, light a fire and wash with a cup from the water tank, I pause often to look out, suck in the air, absorb the trees, greet the animals. I may see my small children playing with a ball (or a goanna running off with the ball), chopping wood, being washed in a bucket, eating a meal at a foldout table, brushing teeth before bed, reading while wrapped in a sleeping bag. I may recall the strange visit a decade ago (after too long a gap) when I was conscious of the tap on the tank while one of my sons – unknown to me until later that day – was in an intensive burns unit after his house burnt down. Or I may revisit my times here since, regretting that it has been too long since the last time a couple of years ago and vowing to return far more often. But above all, I sense my father, appreciating ever more deeply why he felt the call to come to places like this.

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I too feel the pull more strongly this time. Much has to do with a profound sense of turning, of a recovery of what I like to do rather than what others expect me to do (for their own benefit). With each pedal of the day, I had felt as though one unnecessary expectation after the other had been dumped. So by the time I arrive, they are gone, as if simply being here counts as completion of the process.

No wonder I have time for old ghosts on All Saints.

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Campers Kitchen

‘Happy hour’, said the hand-written notice on the door of the campers’ kitchen. ‘Relax, meet other travellers, share your adventures, dream of new places to visit: 5:30 to 6:30 pm’.

No-one was there when I arrived, so they were obviously not happy yet. I was sweaty, overheated and busted after riding my loaded bicycle for almost 100 kilometres, having ridden from Tamworth as part of a longer summer ride. Through the seemingly endless Goonoo Goonoo plain I had peddled, with its vast cattle stations and relentless sun. Just when I had almost hit my ‘wall’, the plain came to end and I was faced with an unforgiving and grinding climb to the top of the Liverpool Range. Sure enough, the drop on the other side into the first reaches of the Hunter was glorious, with my speed generating enough wind to drop my body temperature a degree or two below boiling. Murrurundi was as far as I would ride today. It was as far as I felt like riding for a few days.

While waiting for the party animals to arrive, I undertook a familiar ritual: pacing about to choose the best spot for the tent, pitching it, unpacking the bike, wiping it down and locking it, folding out bedding in anticipation of a comatose sleep, and – when all is done – finding a welcome shower. Al last I ambled back, a little stiffly, to the campers’ kitchen. Now the happy people were present: a red-faced man with a gold chain around his neck, a wrinkled and energetic woman, an expanding man with a grey beard and constantly moving mouth, and his chain-smoking partner. They sipped beers, breathed in cigarette smoke (willingly or unwillingly) and seemed to be happy enough, in obedience to the requirements of the hour.

‘We almost stopped to offer you a lift’, said the mouth. ‘We saw you on the climb and thought, “How can anyone pedal up that!” But we were struggling as it was’. I was later to find out why: their ‘campervan’ was a mansion on wheels. I was sure one would need a special escort for such a vehicle, with flashing lights and a sign, ‘Warning, wide load ahead’.

Indeed, much of the talk was over vans, maintenance, prices, good deals and bad. Not a topic one which I had much to say, given that the only thing in common between my steed and their heavy-movers were wheels. So I cooked a meal on the stove, a mix of beans, tuna and instant noodles – keen to build up my store of energy for the day to come. I joined them with my billy full of steaming sustenance, but as I listened to stories of vans and places visited, of plans for further travel should health hold (for they were not at the youthful end of life), my thoughts drifted to other campers’ kitchens.

This one had been recently built: half open-air, half enclosed. Unwittingly, it invited you in, to sit a while and ponder the universe, especially if those present were holding forth on matters of life and death that seemed strangely of great interest. But I have encountered other kitchens with far less appeal. Great caverns of concrete and steel and glass, they are as enticing as a family barbeque with one’s in-laws (or out-laws as the case may be). Function may have its – well – functions; something to be used without further thought. A stove, a kettle, a table, especially if it is raining – all are useful. But if a television is present or even – God forbid – an internet connection, then the place is clearly aware that it has no inherent appeal.

Yet three over long decades of journeying have stood out, for very different reasons. The first was a few lifetimes ago, tucked away on the edge – in Frankston – of Melbourne’s sprawl into the Mornington Peninsula. Perhaps it was more the turmoil of my own life at the time that made it seem like a sanctuary. Amidst the neat rows of tiny cottages, the permanent van dwellers, and the occasional tent, I had the campers’ kitchen to myself. Here I could cook in peace, read a little, shelter beneath the awning, even survey the ancient and empty fridge that stood proudly at the centre. A worn table and a couple of chairs completed the furniture of my home for a night or two.

The second was on the coast road between Sydney and Melbourne. Here it was less the tumult of my life than the unexpected discovery it provided. On the headland of the fishing town of Bermagui stands the council-run camping ground, with terraced areas for tents and vans. Bermagui itself evoked ancient memories, of camping with my father and my two brothers in the bush nearby, of the legendary hills and green slopes of Mount Dromedary and Tilba Tilba, of journeys through on the way to Tasmania. But I had not been in Bermagui itself for three decades. With dusk falling and the tent pitched, I went in search of the kitchen. Eventually I found what seemed to be a kitchen: it boasted a partial roof and a plank or two for sides, a picnic table and a solitary and rusted gas burner that had seen service in at least three centuries. That was it – forget any other unnecessary appurtenances. With the coastal wind cutting straight through, I struggled to keep the gas flame alight under my billy. An eon seemed to pass as I awaited the contents to cook, but the eventual meal was one of the best I have eaten.

Yet the one I recall in almost legendary terms was on the north coast of Tasmania, many, many lives ago. We – for then I was married and two young daughters were with us for a few weeks of exploring Tasmania – happened upon a village called Stanley for our first night. Stanley’s claim to fame was its fishing and The Knot, an outcrop into Bass Straight. We rolled into town, seeking a spot to camp. One appeared, miraculously, right beside the water. Who could refuse? We soon found out why anyone with a tent would refuse: the upper reaches of the roaring forties do their thing in these parts. Included in their thing is the flattening of any tent that foolishly tries to stand up to the gale. By morning we were sleepless, having endured the flapping, banging and popping of wind-blown tents for the long hours of the night.

So we sought sheltered parts. At the back of the camping area was one such part: vast spreading trees provided a wind-break and a timber structure a refuge. It was painted yellow and red, with solid walls, tight-fitting doors and a sign, ‘Campers’ Kitchen’. One would not describe it or its contents as new, but they had endured the times, and I hope they still do. From its walls I strung a washing line, where clothes would dry in an instant in the wind. Inside we cooked, talked, read, played games, enjoyed a cup of tea or, in the evenings, a beer. And since our tents sat tight by the wall in the lee of the wind, we also slept.

‘Next Time Buy a F***in’ Car’: To Canberra by Bicycle

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‘Next time we’ll bring a tent’, I said.

‘Next time we’ll check ahead for accommodation’, she said.

‘Next time buy a fuckin’ car’, said the old bikie.

Not long before, we had pedalled wearily into the metropolis of Trunkey Creek, somewhere in the mountains between Bathurst and Crookwell. At the midpoint of a week’s ride from Mt. Victoria to Canberra, we had already done some serious mountain climbing and had even more to go. But now our main concerns were food and shelter, for we had neither for the evening. Would we have to sleep on a park bench, or perhaps on the side of the road, cold and hungry?

Back Roads: Between Pleasure and Pain

We had seized a week from lives that seem to remain busy, despite our best efforts. It was enough time to ride through some remote parts, from the edge of the Blue Mountains to the intriguing Australian capital. Through Lithgow, Bathurst, Abercrombie Caves, Crookwell, Gunning and Murrumbateman we would pass, although we had not planned to follow this route. Initially, we set out to ride along main roads, bending our way westwards to Cowra and then south through Boorowa to Canberra. But the short ‘positioning ride’ – 25 kilometres from Mt Victoria to Lithgow – changed our minds. Here the Great Western Highway begins to drop, on a steep and twisting road, out of the Blue Mountains. Massive semi-trailers grind downhill in low gear, sweeping wide on the hair-pin bends. Cars stack up behind, impatient to pass. And the road shoulder is rubbish-strewn, bumpy and barely a ribbon, where it exists at all.

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So we agreed to follow the back roads, prepared to take what they had to offer – a mixture of pleasure and pain. Painful was the climbing, and our route was not short of the climbs. Some were steady and seemingly never-ending. Some were vertiginous, like climbing a wall on two wheels. The first 20 kilometres out of Lithgow – on our second day – had plenty of these, although they were nothing by comparison with what was to come a couple of days later. That day’s ride, from Abercrombie Caves to Crookwell, was the toughest I have ridden for quite some time. It had no less than eight gut-busting climbs over 80 kilometres, alternating between rough bitumen and gravel. Here the steepness was such that I often had to stand on the pedals, in granny gear, to keep the bicycle moving at all. The flow of honey on rolls, kiwi fruit and muesli bars – really glorified sugar mixes – were the only things that kept us going.

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Yet even pain like this has its own pleasure, not so much beyond the pain barrier but in the pain itself. For this reason, I perversely like to stay on the bicycle rather than walk the toughest parts – even if my riding speed is no greater than hauling a loaded bicycle up a goat track on foot.

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Very different are those glorious stretches of road which appear by happenstance, a dream road that keeps you heading out again and again. One such road – between Tarana and Bathurst – appeared already on the second day. A river road it was, following the railway line. The morning of that day may have been tough, leading us to dread the afternoon, but the advice of a local at the Tarana pub sent us this way. Soon enough our legs lost their leaden feeling, the swooping magpies seemed to offer friendly greetings, a couple of echidnas toddled out to see the curious sight of two cyclists in their peaceful part of the world, and the road seemed as though it had been made for us. The 40 or so kilometres passed in no time at all.

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A few days later, we happened upon another: the ride from Crookwell to Gunning. It began ominously enough, with a slow climb first thing in the morning to 1200 metres. But from here the rest of the day was a long downhill, with a few small rises in the gradual descent. All the grinding climbs of the previous day fell away. An early spring sun shone, the air was clear and the views took in the valley below. If one can have a rest on a bicycle, then this was it. Even our leather seats felt like comfortable chairs upon which we lazily stretched.

Local ‘Histories’

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After a day in the saddle, I sleep long and deep, my body repairing and my mind loose. But finding a town or even a village, let alone a bed for the night is not always a given. A bicycle’s front wheel can take you to unexpected places, for it seems to have a mind of its own. Our first stop was Lithgow, which we love – a working town in a fold of the mountains with a feel like Newcastle. But the pub was rough and ready and the sandy-haired publican foul-mouthed and grumpy. In Bathurst, with its grand streets and imposing Presbyterian Church, we raced from pub to motel to pub, only to score – by seconds – the last room in Jim Duggan’s. Could we take our bicycles into the room? Of course. And what a room it was, with a separate bathroom, toilet, living area and massive bedroom – a small apartment really. In Gunning, we happened upon a grand room in the Telegraph Hotel with a glorious balcony. It was $50 for the night.

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Yet, I was most intrigued by the ‘flyers’ in the motel in Crookwell (yes, we opted for a motel after that day of eight tough climbs). The ‘flyers’ in question were simply sheets of paper, providing ‘histories’ of the towns in the area. And immensely informative they were. Historic events included the birth of the first white child, the establishment of saddlery, boot maker and a mail order business, the forthrightness of a certain Dr Ettie Lyons, the planting of pine trees along the main street, the removal of veranda posts from footpaths in 1950, and, most recently, the arrival of alpacas. Much space was given to a murder in Gunning: Lucretia Dunkley, with the assistance of their servant, murdered her husband, Henry, at their farm. They were executed for their efforts. Even more intriguing were the implicit narratives. The account of crops grown revealed a systemic destruction of native flora: wheat was grown and potatoes used to break up the soil; sheep then roamed over the land to ‘stool’ the wheat, and along with cattle, they ate down the native grasses. And as rabbits became a nuisance, a rabbit freezing works was established. Equally implicit was the presentation of emergence of the towns on a tabula rasa. Some European ‘discovered’ the area, settlers arrived and the town was declared. Miraculously, no Indigenous people were within cooee – with one exception: the account of Gunning at least recognises the Pajong ‘Fish River’ people in the area. As for Taralga, a nearby town, the account bends over backwards to avoid the obvious conclusion that the name is Indigenous. Instead, it suggests the unlikely possibility that the name derives from ‘Trial Gang’, since at Gunning many bushrangers were put on trial and sentenced.  Uncannily, these potted and quirky accounts reminded me of my youth in such towns, where small local events loom large in the world.

People: From Bad Advice to Ex-Bikies

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The rhythm of the day’s ride, with the painful pleasure of grinding climbs and unexpected stretches of dream roads may be one part of a ride such as this. Out-of-the-way places and the challenge of finding a bed for the night may be another. But I never cease to be surprised by the sheer variety of the strange species known as homo sapiens. Relatively remote country areas seem to enhance their uniqueness.

The twinkling woman in Binda – some distance out of Crookwell – was one. She ran the only shop in the village, where we pulled up with jelly-like legs from the 60 kilometres of precipitous climbs and drops we had just completed.

I staggered into the shop, bought some water and energy, and asked, ‘What is the road like to Crookwell?’

‘Oh, it’s quite flat from here,’ she said.

‘Any climbs?’ I asked. ‘We’re buggered, since we’ve been in the mountains’.

‘I little bit of a rise after the bridge,’ she said. ‘But after that you have long downhill run into Crookwell’.

‘That’s music to my legs’, I said, smiling.

‘You’ll enjoy the view as you ride into Crookwell’.

We had twenty kilometres to go, but from the sound of it, the ride would be a pleasurable pedal through the countryside. How wrong she was. Crookwell sits at 1000 metres above sea-level, and Binda does not. So the road turned out to be two long, steady climbs – with a slight drop at the bridge she mentioned – until we reached the heights of Crookwell. To be sure, we did have a view of town as we rode in, but only for the last kilometre.

The moral: never ask a car driver regarding the nature of the road. For such a person, a steep road means a winding road. A straight road, by contrast, seems to be flat. Never mind the extra push on the accelerator.

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At least we did meet one other group of cyclists who, we thought, should have known better. Two young boys and their father were on a short, three-day tour in the area. A triple they rode, with the father up front and the boys on the two seats behind. With such an expensive machine – a Bike Friday at little less than $10,000 – and the sunny days of early spring, one would have expected them to be relishing the time on the road. But it did not seem so. We encountered them half a dozen times, on the road and in the towns at either end. It was more than enough to realise that the boys were grumpy and the father bored. The boys barely spoke, preferring to play with the iPods mounted on their handlebars. The father regaled us with tales of round-Australia rides before the boys were born. Clearly, he felt their arrival had brought to an end his vigorous youth and curtailed his freedom now. Their ride seemed more punishment than pleasure.

Not so the chunky cyclist in Bathurst. She had the distinct gift of holding the most astonishing variety of local knowledge in her head – and passing it onto every traveller she encountered. No wonder she worked in the tourist information office. Somewhere in her late forties, she was stout to puffy, having benefitted from a life of solid country food. But when she saw our bicycles her eyes lit up. She too was an avid cyclist, knowing the best roads in the area, having done many long tours, and waxing forth – with immense anticipation – about her up-coming tour of Vietnam. ‘She would be the last person I would have expected to be a cyclist’, said my companion.

Yet, the highlight would have to be Trunkey Creek, where we encountered the local and his colourful assertion of the value of automobiles. Here the sheer idiosyncrasies of the Australian countryside struck us on all sides.

Trunkey Creek boasts a solitary pub and collection of semi-retired bikies and old locals. We had arrived hungry and without a bed for the night.

‘Do you have a room for the night?’ I asked the middle-aged woman pulling beers.

She looked grim. ‘No, they’re being worked on’.

‘Any chance down the road?’ I said.

‘No, the pub at Tuena shut ages ago’. She said. ‘But you can ask the man out the front in the blue shirt. If there’s anything, he’ll know’.

On the veranda, the man with the blue shirt was resting a beer on his impressive gut. He also sported a closed eye, while the other one twitched uncontrollably. But he was generous in the way of country people: if needed, we could use his shed out the back, which had a bed.

His mates started spluttering over their drinks.

‘Don’t mind him if he leaps about the back yard in his batman suit’, said one.

‘It’s not the batman suit I’d be worrying about’, said another. ‘It’s his tighty whities he likes to get around in’.

But one of them, the local police officer who was also having a drink, suggested I call the National Parks and Wildlife Service. They had a few cabins at Abercrombie Caves, about 10 kilometres down the road. One might be available. I borrowed the phone at the bar and tried calling for an hour. At last, a careful, if a little pedantic, man answered the phone.

‘We’re about to close the office’, he said.

‘Do you have a cabin free?’ I asked.

After an immense pause and the sound of ruffling paper, he said: ‘Yes, one is available. How long?’

‘Just tonight’, I said.

‘Yes, it’s available tonight’, he said.

He agreed to leave the key on the office door, since he was going home (which turned out to be in the same building).

Back on the veranda I told our new friend with the shed – and thanked him for the kind offer.

‘I guess you’ll miss the tighty whities’, said one of his drinking mates.

We had shelter, but still no food. Once again I asked the woman behind the bar. The menu had nothing but chocolate bars and chunky beef pies. I opted for the pies, even though I had not eaten one for half a life in light of their less than thrilling reputation.

‘How many do you want? She said.

‘How many have you got?’ I said.

She went to freezer to check. ‘Seven’.

‘We’ll take the lot of them’. I said.

2014 September 061a (640x480)

She threw them into a bag, still frozen. The light was fading, so we mounted our bikes and were off. Farewells rang in our ears, not least the one asserting the sexual practices of cars.

At the caves, we found the cabin at the bottom of a winding, narrow drop. Inside, and out of the chilly night, I filled the small oven with a pile of pies. A pungent smell of chunky beef and greasy pastry filled the cabin. She ate the pastry, unable to stomach the innards. So they were mine. They seemed to hit the spot, although by morning our stomachs were not so sure.

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Ten Tips for Bicycle Touring

The bicycle is checked, the panniers are packed and the road beckons. It may be a couple of days’ escape on quiet back roads, or it may be a slightly longer haul, such as the back way from Melbourne to Sydney, or perhaps the cyclist’s mecca, the Nullarbor Plain. Whether you are a seasoned tourer or a first-timer, let me offer some tips with a difference – assuming the basics have been covered, such as bicycle roadworthiness and letting someone know you are off.

1. Keep it simple. You don’t need the latest, fancy tourer with expensive running gear. If you do set out on one, inevitably you will find that a crucial, intricate part will break down in the middle of nowhere and that it requires a highly specialised tool and a university degree to fix it. Once, when planning a long haul over a few weeks, I walked into my local bike shop with a fistful of cash. Thinking that my 20-year old bicycle was not up to the task, I was all set to buy the latest pair of touring two-wheels on offer. But out from the workshop came Margaret, who had set the world record for Sydney-to-Melbourne back in 1969. She took one look at my ancient bike and said, ‘that’ll make it, no trouble’. In fact, she pointed out, it was probably better built than anything I could buy now. I walked out, cash in hand, and hit the road with the old bike.

2. If you are in another country, buy second-hand. Do not worry about carting your bicycle half-way around the world to ride. It is a massive hassle getting a bike on a plane, especially with airlines becoming ever fussier about such bulky items and almost bankrupting you in the process. Find a reputable second-hand bike shop and buy one. You can sell it when you leave. I know people who have ridden across Europe on a second-hand bicycle that cost $300, with absolutely no trouble.

3. Steel is better than aluminium. Why? Steel absorbs the inevitable bumps you will meet on the way, flexing and providing a more comfortable ride. Notice the way aluminium (or indeed other compound frames) often have shock absorbers in the seat or perhaps on the forks. They are there to soften a harsh ride. And steel can easily be welded in a farm shed should you be out in the sticks and find a crack in your frame. Isn’t steel heavier? Slightly, but by the time you add the running gear, racks, panniers, water bottles and so on, it makes little difference

4. Travel light. This one is obvious, but usually forgotten. Even if you are setting out with camping gear and winter gear, everything should still fit in two rear panniers. One change of clothes, tent, sleeping gear, food, cooking and eating utensils, tools and spare parts, even a book, can easily be loaded that way. Staying in accommodation? All you need is a small bag strapped onto the back rack.

5. Mudguards. I may be old-fashioned, but the cost-saving move (by manufacturers) not to include mudguards on modern bicycles is a crime. They are simple but wonderful devices. Wait until the first downpour or muddy track, and the spray of mud in your face or in a line up your back will become a complete nuisance. Panniers covered in road grit are no fun either.

6. That extraneous item. Every touring cyclist has at least one unnecessary item they bring along. I have seen riders with a complex solar recharging unit sitting atop the rear panniers, a fold-out stool, a laptop, a mosquito net for morning and afternoon tea … My own indulgence is a book. Desperately, I try to restrict it to one book, but I never get through even that one.

7. Rear cluster wrench. That said, one or two items are a must. One is a rear-cluster wrench. If you are going to pop a spoke, then it will be on your rear wheel on the cluster side. The reason is that those spokes are under most stress. They are on the drive (chain) side, and they carry the panniers and most of your weight. A rear cluster wrench will enable to you to remove the cluster and replace the spoke.

8. Carry a cigarette lighter. Another must-take item is a cigarette lighter, not so much for the smoke you may wish to have over a beer upon meeting another rider, but for a fire in the evening. Or during the day, for that matter, should you wish to boil a billy, as I like to do on a break.

9. Ride within yourself. Again, this may seem obvious, but on a tour you need to be able to get back on the bike the next day. 150 km may feel like a real buzz, but the next day won’t. About 80km is a target than can easily be achieved without wearing you out over the long haul. More than that and carbohydrate depletion sets in. Plus, it gives you time for either a leisurely morning before departure or a quiet afternoon on arrival. Time to read, wash some clothes, enjoy a beer, cook some food, ponder the universe over a campfire.

10. Take your time. You would not be on a bicycle if you were in a hurry. And it is neither a race nor an event to set the world record for cycling around Australia, or China or Europe. Instead of looking constantly at the speedo (which is really not a necessary item at all), you can enjoy the world slowly passing by.

2011 April 025a

High in the Apennines: Cycling an Italian Summer

Once again I tried to dance on the pedals, rising from my seat, desperately and unsuccessfully dodging the boulders that passed for a gravel surface, leaning forward over the handlebars to prevent the bicycle from rearing up like a frisky horse. Once again I was forced to stop and leap off the bike before it tumbled down the mountain slope. And once again I checked the map: it clearly indicated that this was a paved road over the mountains and back to my lodgings in Pistoia, a village between Florence and Pisa in Tuscany. Obviously, the map was an imaginative, utopian work, perhaps a plan for 2100. For this ‘paved’ road was a track that would defy even the most agile mountain goat.

So I heeded the sentiments of my mountain-loving comrades and regretfully turned back, resigned to the long way back to Pistoia. As I did so I recalled the words of a young woman in a shop:

‘Are you cycling around Italy on your own’, she said.

I nodded and smiled.

‘You’re mad’, she said.

I had come to Italy on my first serious trip to Europe, released from a prison of a relationship, relishing that age-old feeling of freedom. And I had planned to cycle through Italy, or, rather, through a steamy, burning Tuscany for a week or so.

Pistoia

The small town of Pistoia was my base, where I had arrived with a newly-acquired fold-up bicycle, a Dahon tourer that turned out to be a sheer joy to ride. Soon enough, I settled into the Brooks leather saddle as though I were settling into a comfortable armchair. But why Pistoia, whose only claim to fame was a contested religious relic? Why not Rome or Florence or Milan or Venice, one of Italy’s famous cities? It came down to a slender Italian woman, who was studying in Australia. Her family lived in Pistoia, her sister owned an apartment for guests, which would be available for me cheaply. Perfect, I thought: a small town in the country; I had time to myself to ride; she seemed more than friendly, dropping in every day.

But she remained friendly and no more – over wine and pizza and coffee, introducing me to her friends, guiding me through Florence, posing for some extraordinary photographs, talking endlessly. So I concentrated on exploring the town and riding the mountains. She turned out to be the only English speaker in Pistoia. Otherwise, I was on my own. When I bought bread and cheese and tomato at the twelfth-century piazza, I would hand over far too much only for the smiling farmer to hand most of it back to me. I desperately plundered the phrase book to find the words to buy smokes, to get a raggio (spoke) fixed, to ask directions when the map failed me. I explored the walls and towers, wondered at how so many people could be well-dressed, even from the farms and villages, and absorbed the party atmosphere from the music festival that descended upon the town in my last days there.

Riding

Above all, I rode. I rode into the Apennines, was overtaken by a svelte peloton as I sweated up the long haul to Vinci, where I visited the birthplace of Leonardo. I sped along the busy road back from the fortress of Lucca, hard by Pisa, dodging the mad Italian traffic. I pedalled to Prato and eventually Florence to catch a train for the next phase of my riding in the Netherlands. All the while, I repeatedly became lost, aided by that wonderful work of imagination, the road map.

In more detail: on my first day, I rode via a twisting road high into the upper reaches of the Apennines, by villages and ruins and evidence of wild boar. I bumped over the cobbled village streets of Villa Baggio, pushing up and up until the bitumen disappeared and ruins began to show. Scratchings of wild boar became so common that I began watching for tusked hulks thundering out of the undergrowth. On my way down I paused for a piss just above Baggio, only to be met by a toothless old woman who shouted Italian at me ever more loudly, hoping that sheer volume would crash through my incomprehension.

‘Isn’t it beautiful?’ She might have said.

‘How wonderful to be able to ride these mountain roads’, may have been her meaning.

Or: ‘Don’t piss on the side of the road, dickhead’.

Or perhaps: ‘Haven’t you heard of the Mafiosi, dimwit?’

Smiling sweetly, I took my time about remounting the bike and coasting down the mountain.

On another occasion, a long climb suddenly gave way to a quiet, winding, single lane road and a uniquely Tuscan experience. The narrow road was bordered by low stone walls, centuries old. Beyond the walls were terraced fields of vines and olives. And it was all bathed in that unique Tuscan sun – which also left me chronically dehydrated.

But it was here that I discovered the tiny village of Tizzana. Tizzana? Is there not a winery by that name north-west of Sydney on the Hawkesbury River? Yes, and it was built by a certain Dr Thomas Fiaschi, an Italian surgeon in the early European colony (see www.winery.tizzana.com.au/history.html). That Tizzana became a refuge for him and his new wife, a former nun with whom he had eloped. But why call it Tizzana? This surgeon hailed from the village of the same name, in Tuscany up in the mountains. And while he took a break from cutting people open in the new colony, he developed the winery he had built, constructing a stone home and winepress such as those in his old village, and introducing Italian wine-making techniques to the land down under. Our surgeon-vigneron was also responsible for Il Porcino, the bras boar in Macquarie Street, Sydney, outside the original hospital. Or rather, the citizens of Florence sent, after Fiaschi’s death, the boar as a gift, a copy of the one in Florence itself. It is said that stroking the boar’s polished nose is meant to bring good luck, along with a rich cluster of collected bacteria.

On another day I caught a local train to the fabled Lucca, walked the walls, wondered at the round piazza with its overlooking balconies and then decided to battle the traffic for the ride back to Pistoia. But on this ride – relatively flat and fast and ridden with that extreme-sport thrill of an unhelmeted tussle with Italian traffic – it was the women in uniform who took my imagination.

On the train, the conductor was anything but frumpy. A sleek uniform, a shirt partially unbuttoned, a blue cap perched on perfectly made hair; at each stop she would saunter out onto the platform on high-heeled boots and casually blow the whistle in a way that was all too suggestive. And in Lucca a police officer was directing traffic around a building site. Once again the uniform was a sleek affair, a gun was slung well over a well-defined thigh and signals were given to traffic in a way that said, ‘Don’t mess with me!’ Yet all the time she smiled and flirted with the builders, who thoroughly enjoyed the game while not realising that they were thoroughly wrapped around her little finger.

Politics

Too soon did I have to pack my panniers and say farewell to Pistoia. Slowly I did so and slowly I rode, eventually to Florence and a long-distance train ride north. On that ride I pondered again the curious bifurcated politics of Italy. Here the communists have always been strong; here the imprisoned Gramsci wrote some of the most influential works of communist theory; here Negri had taken up the mantle, now residing in Venice after two decades of exile in France. But here too Mussolini had come to power and linked arms with Hitler. And now Berlusconi was dominating Italian politics as I rode.

When I was at school I had read that Mussolini’s claim to fame was that he had drained the Tuscan marshes and made the trains ran on time. A piece of hagiography, surely; a cute formulation from a witty historian. Curious, I asked people about the fascist past and present, about how Mussolini was remembered. The response I received again and again was, ‘Well, you know, at least he drained the Tuscan marshes and made the trains run on time!’

What about now? Do the trains run on time? Not at all. My train from Florence to Milan arrived two hours late, at the other end of an unannounced platform. Its air-conditioning was broken, the ratio of people to seats was about three-to-one, all of them deftly avoiding the train conductor as he moved about checking tickets.

So I now apply this foolproof test: if the trains run on time, then fascism has already arrived. If not, then one can relax. So it is with Italy.

A Bicycle: Parable of a Life

Twenty years ago I walked into a local bicycle shop, seeking my first serious and well-made machine. I knew little about such matters, except that I wanted something reliable, comfortable and sleek. Much discussion and many test-rides later, I settled on a bright red Giant Kronos. Soon enough it came to be known as the Red Giant. Little did I realise at the time, but it would become a parable of a life.

My loathing of cars meant that the Red Giant was my prime mode of transport. A ride to and from work, the shops, to meet people – these are obvious. But it was the unexpected uses that made the bike what it was. My two daughters were still small and needed to get here, there, and everywhere. So I acquired a trailer attachment, with its own wheel, handlebars, brakes and pedals. A squeal of delight on the first ride by each daughter ensured that it soon became a staple mode of transport – to school, to parties, to swimming lessons, to baseball games …

The bike became a work-horse in more ways than one. My love of books, either borrowed from libraries or purchased second-hand, meant that its panniers were more often than not full of books. Weekly I would ride from Parramatta to Sydney, a 65 km return ride, in search of books. Before designated bicycle routes became a feature, I found my quiet route – along rivers, on forgotten ferries, through the waves of expansion that the city has undertaken.

The bicycle also had its days off, when we would free-wheel over long distances, either alone or together with others in organised rides. At the Sydney Spring Cycle we would meet thousands of others to ride roads closed off just for bicycles. Out of the city, we would be free to run on open roads where cars rarely ran. We also learnt serious mountain climbing, through the tough slopes in the wilderness north of the city. Yet, these were merely a taste of serious tours to come.

Eventually, the daughters grew up and rode their own bikes, along with their brothers. Eventually, my marriage broke up and the Red Giant found itself alone on cold, gravelly tracks in Melbourne, riding from humble lodgings to a small lonely office. Eventually, after the first decade of riding, it was no longer able to do so. A snapped seat stay, a worn drive mechanism, and cracked wheels meant that its future was in doubt. For a lost year or two, it was only a frame, stripped down and hanging in the corner of a work room.

But then I decided to rebuild the Red Giant, at the same time that I decided to get out of a disastrous relationship and rebuild my life. Slowly, the Red Giant came back together. New wheels, new drive mechanism, new leather seat, new headset, reconditioned brakes – all on a cleaned out, repaired, and repainted frame. I still recall that first ride in the Dandenong Hills after the Giant had come back to life. It was overjoyed to be back on the road. And I too was overjoyed to free as well.

Soon enough, the Giant and I moved to be closer to my children. Now we rode regularly and eagerly to see them, the girls an hour away by bicycle, the boys two days by the same means (three hours by train). By this time, I had ridden a couple of other bicycles. One was a dead loss, an expensive Cannondale tourer, and the other a useful addition, a fold-up Dahon on which I toured extensively. Yet, the Dahon was not as durable, and soon enough the frame cracked and I sold its repaired version.

I had one bicycle left: the Red Giant. And I had a big ride in mind: 1200 km from Melbourne to Sydney. Would it manage such a long haul, with camping gear, food and clothes in the panniers? Not sure, I went to see the local bicycle shop. Here I met Margaret, who had set the world record for Melbourne to Sydney in 1969. She took one look at the Red Giant and said, ‘Of course, it will make it. It’s far stronger than anything you can buy today’. So we did the ride, over two weeks along the southern coast and then into the mountains as it pedalled northward.

There was no stopping me. For the next five years, I toured every couple of months. Short camping trips into the wilderness; long hauls in my beloved Hunter Valley; even longer rides from Brisbane to my home (900 km). I would long for the day’s ride, for the camping spot in the bush, for the cooking fire at night, for the immensely long sleeps after a day’s ride.

By now, the bicycle was showing signs of age. I had patched it so much with red paint (actually nail polish) that virtually none of its original paint remained. It began popping spokes a little too often, the chain rings were worn, and the gear changes sluggish and slipping. The wheel bearings were no longer as smooth and the cables were worn. Should I rebuild once again? I sought out Margaret’s advice. ‘Twenty-year frame?’ She said. ‘It’s like an eighty year old man. I wouldn’t rebuild it, since you never know whether the frame will hold out’.

What to do? Sell it; leave it to gather dust in a corner? No, the Red Giant has moved into semi-retirement. We still ride locally, around town and maybe for a day ride. The panniers are still loaded with books, and I still use it for my local form of transport. But now it has a younger cousin, a Surly Long-Haul Tricker. It enjoys the long tours into the mountains, and on return the two of them share stories, the one reliving its past and the other with new tales to tell.

2011 January 017a