The Heat Exhaustion Ride

The difference between heat exhaustion and heat stroke seems marginal. Both are caused by the body’s inability to cool itself. Internal moisture becomes scarce, sweating stops, and the body temperature starts to rise. The signs: dehydration, lack of sweat, faintness and dizziness, red skin, exhaustion, vomiting and diarrhoea, leading to muscle cramps and potential collapse. The last few are more typical of heat stroke. What is the difference between the two? Heat exhaustion entails a rise in body temperature between 37 and 40 degrees, while heat stroke is above 40 degrees. More importantly, heat stroke requires immediate hospitalisation, since it is life threatening.

Why was I interested in such matters? Over a week in February, in the midst of a long, hot summer, I had set out on my bicycle for a week’s ride, from Newcastle to Canberra – some 500 kilometres. Loaded with a tent, some clothes and food, I was keen to get away.

I had checked the forecasts before departure and they seemed bearable enough. Somewhere around 30 degrees – no worries, I thought, forgetting that such measurements apply to the shade, not to long periods in the direct sun. On a bicycle over a long day, anything below 35 degrees is endurable. Drink enough, rest when needed, and you are fine.

Alas, only one day was in this comfort zone, at 33 degrees. The rest were well above, pushing into the high 30s and low 40s. And one day would simply blow away any previous record, rising almost to 50 degrees and taking me into a zone I had never experienced before.

A Gentle Beginning

The ride began gently enough. On the first day, I aimed for a coastal camping spot slightly less than 50 kilometres from home – at Munmorah.

Suburban streets, a rail trail for some 20 kilometres, some hills and I would be done. Perhaps as a forewarning, the temperature on the bicycle peaked at 40 degrees. The only relief was a stiff headwind – so stiff that it produced whitecaps on the usually tranquil Lake Macquarie to my right. By the time I arrived at Munmorah, after 47 kilometres, I felt as though I had ridden double that distance.

The next day – from Munmorah to Narara (to see my mother) – was genuinely gentle. I have camped at Munmorah National Park on quite a few occasions over the last few years. Each time I am told I should pay the ranger in the morning. Strangely, the ranger has never appeared before my departure. Of course, I would fully undertake to pay aforesaid ranger should she or he make an appearance. But the ranger in question seems to be somewhat mythical … or perhaps it is due to my preference for leaving before 8 am.

A gentle ride it indeed was. A little over 50 kilometres, along bicycle paths that skirt Budgewoi Lake. No stress, a mild 33 degrees, a twist and turn and I was at my destination.

Into the Mountains

The route for the next day I knew well: the old road from Gosford to Sydney, long ago abandoned by traffic that now prefers the freeway. It had been a while since I had tackled this old route, although my memory always focuses on the three long and winding climbs through rugged bush. Tough climbs. In between – or so my memory tells me – are relatively flat sections, giving me time to catch my breath for the next assault. Memory really is an untrustworthy faculty: the parts in between rise and fall, rise and fall, rise and fall … sapping your energy before you realise.

I was to feel their effect after cresting the second tough climb, up from Moonie Moonie Creek to the top of Mount White. Thus far I felt as though I had paced myself well, climbing with some reserve, enjoying the old bends and the sounds and smells of the bush. This would have been a good place to stop, replenish liquids and energy sources, rest a while and then ride on. But no, I had my mind set on a stop further along, after the relative ‘flat’ section through the Mount White area and then down to the Hawkesbury River. The sun bore down at 38 degrees, the relentless rises and falls wore me down, moisture was scarce and my energy was soon gone. By the time I descended to the Hawkesbury I was spent – with one massive climb to go.

A pile of soggy cheese and pickle sandwiches disappeared in no time, tasting like a veritable feast. Litres of water followed, from the local rainwater tank that one is not supposed to drink in these times. And a rest, so that my body could begin to replenish itself before the last effort.

By the time I finished the day at my resting place near Parramatta, I felt as though I had been pushed well past my comfort zone. The fitness gurus say that one can improve fitness only by extending oneself, by going beyond the limit. Today, I had been well and truly past that limit. Surely it would be easier from now on.

Through the ‘Desert’

Out of Parramatta is a marvellous piece of bicycle engineering – a veloway. Swinging west and then south, it runs some 40 kilometres to Casula, on the outskirts of southern Sydney.

Why call it a ‘veloway’? It is a purpose-built cycling freeway, following the route of the western orbital motorway (now mundanely called the ‘M7) that enables through traffic to bypass Sydney. The veloway was constructed as part of the larger project, using the latest designs and techniques for safe, dedicated cycling. More than a decade has passed since it was first unveiled and it remains one of the best examples of what Australian planners and engineers can do for cycling if they set their minds to it – not that they always do so.

Needless to say, I was much looking forward to it, with the thought that I would perhaps be the only ‘through cyclist’ for the day. To be sure, a good number use the route, whether for training runs or as a convenient means to get from A to B. But I was passing through, not wanting to dwell too long in any one place, always drawn to the road once more.

But the road so often changes without notice.

The morning may have been a glorious ride, largely on my own, along this stunning piece of bicycle engineering. But the afternoon was another story. With the veloway coming to an end, I paused for lunch. It had already become warm enough and I was feeling it. Nothing like what was to come.

I pedalled out onto the shoulder of the motorway. Normally, it takes me a while to become used to the noise of trucks and other traffic. This afternoon, I hardly noticed the trucks, for my attention was elsewhere.

The thermometer on my bicycle jumped to 48 degrees! Before lunch, it had registered 40 degrees already. Tough enough. But 48? I had never in my life experienced such heat. The wind felt like a massive blow dryer stuck on ‘super-hot’.

I began to notice that the animal carcases on the side of the road – inevitable sights on a bicycle in Australia – were merely skin and bone, if not bones alone. Usually, I encounter carcases in various states of slow decay, depending on how recently they had been unfortunate enough to encounter a vehicle. Not now. They looked as though some alien predator had sucked them all dry. I felt as though I was riding through a desert.

After 10 kilometres, I pulled over and drank a litre and a half of water. But I could not urinate. Was the lack of sweat normal, I wondered? Was the involuntary drip of moisture at the corner of my mouth just the result of exertion? Was the faint feeling and slowness of thought simply the result of extreme conditions? And was the deep weariness normal after four hard days on the road?

Within a few more kilometres, I came across a sign: ‘Cyclists prohibited on motorway due to roadwork. Please take a bypass’. Clarity of thought was needed, but clarity was hard to come by, let alone shade. I paused long on the side of the side, pondering my options in the sun. I had planned to camp towards the west, but was this a viable bypass route? Not really, it turned out, since the road – the old highway – wound its way through ‘Razorback’. Not what I felt like in weather like this. How about eastwards? This was closer to the railway line should I need it, or the other bypass through other mountains. Caution came to the forefront and I opted for a hotel a few kilometres back.

Upon entering the simple room, I cried out in relief. It was cool, the bed clean and inviting, the cold shower a blessing. I drank and drank and drank – water. Indeed, I had become aware of how much I was focused on water. I was constantly on the lookout for water, seeking to replenish my supply of four litres. Usually, this amount is more than enough, but on this ride I ran short time and again.

By the next morning, I realised I had a slight case of heat exhaustion. Not heat stroke, thankfully, although the ride as a whole turned out to have an average temperature of a ‘shade’ under 40 degrees – actual temperatures on the bicycle, out in the sun (minimum 33 and maximum 48). It took me until lunch time to feel as though I was once again hydrated to normal levels. And I realised I would not be riding much on that day. A short ride to the railway station saw me on a local train to Moss Vale and its camping area. Here at least the evening was cool, so much so I had to zip up my sleeping bag.

A Decade is a Long Time

A rest day is a mighty blessing. I have not always taken rest days, pushing on day after day. But of late I have come to appreciate a pause, to rest, eat, drink and rest. The day afterwards, one feels renewed.

So it was when I set out from Moss Vale, to ride 75 kilometres to Goulburn. I took my time through the hills, drinking plenty, managing now the relatively “cool” 38 degrees. And by now I was once again aware that the rhythmic working of one’s body enables the mind to run where it will, if not to completely unexpected corners of memory and bodily associations. The thoughts become one’s friends, especially when such a ride is a solitary experience.

Today I began to recall a ride of almost ten years ago when I rode these parts. Saying my last farewell to phase of my life that I have largely forgotten (for we forget what is unpleasant and traumatic). I was riding from Melbourne to Newcastle, with each pedal down a push away from that life. Obviously, I was riding the other way on that occasion, northwards, but moments recalled the earlier ride. The camping area slightly north of Goulburn had not changed so much. New owners perhaps, but the singing ants were still there, as well as the outdoor model railway – requiring daily maintenance. The old internet station too was there in the campers’ kitchen, requiring a coin for an incredibly slow connection. I had used it then, to check on email – which the next generation or two regards as very ‘traditional’. Now one can – in theory – access Wi-Fi throughout the campsite, to be used one’s ‘smart’ phone. I did not use it, since I am not into the incessant checking of social media, let alone email messages that people may want to send me since they know of my social media aversions.

All this is to frame the changes of a decade in terms of technology fetishism. Truth be told, the technology we now have is clunky and unreliable, geared to become obsolete by the time a year is out. The changes were more in terms of a life. Then, I was on an old red tourer that was not quite up to the loads I liked to put on it. I treated it like a workhorse, but it preferred to think of itself a racehorse. It popped two spokes on the ride. Now, I was on a true workhorse, a Surly long-haul trucker. A strong, uncompromising bicycle that took on any task without complaining. I wish I had used it earlier. Paradoxically, it was not available at that time, perhaps waiting for me to reach this phase of my life. Then, I still pushed myself to the extreme, wanting a little extra in the competition of life. Now, I am content with a gentler pace, savouring what passes and knowing my limits a little better.

So why am I planning almost 100 kilometres to Canberra tomorrow?

Dreaming of Food

I had longed for this day, for it was to take me along the mysterious Lake George.

Why mysterious? The lake has no feeder streams, relying purely on the continental aquifer than runs across the breadth of Australia. When the aquifer is saturated elsewhere, the lake fills up; when it dries out, the lake empties. As a child in Canberra, I recall the lake being full quite a bit. But for years, decades even, it has mostly been empty. Only once in recent years do I recall it being partly full. Is this because the aquifer has dried out somewhat of its own accord? Or is it due to the bottled water companies having unrestricted access?

After a few hills out of Goulburn, one turns onto the Federal Highway, the road to Canberra. A wide shoulder, few trucks and sweeping views of Lake George took me in for the next 50 kilometres. It helped that I had a mild tailwind, enabling me to use the big ring on the front and ride at a good clip. Often I paused to look out over the flat land, skirted by a few low hills.

The big sky towered above, giving me the sense of being in a vast expanse, lost to the rest of the world and its concerns. With my phone turned off, no trace of my passing could be detected by anyone – except by means of the old medium of sight.

Apart from the lake, my thoughts had begun to focus on food. I imagined what I would eat on arrival: fresh fruit piled high, cheese and tomato on toast, iced mineral water with limes, cold beers … on and on I dreamt. Why? Deciding to use up the last of my food stocks, I found that I had nothing more than two stale slices of bread and umpteen muesli bars. The bars are great energy packs, with quick release sugars and slow releases nuts. But they really function as a supplement to more substantial meals. By noon, I was thoroughly sick of the bars, even though I had no option but to keep eating them.

For the final run into Canberra I had to say farewell to the lake but not to the dreams of food. The dreams stayed even when the temperature climbed past 40 degrees – again – and when the long hills took their toll, leaving me exhausted and drained. Even then, the first thing I did in Canberra was stop to buy way more food than I could eat and drink. Only then did I pedal to my destination.

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The Selfie Tour

The familiar and the strange – they came together sharply on a bicycle ride into the remote mountains hereabouts. The familiar: a bicycle, tent, food to cook on a fire, warm clothes for a chill winter night. The strange: a smartphone, bought in China, full of a language I am learning. Above all, it had the inevitable feature of the selfie camera – something I had never experienced before.

Having been away from home for some months, I longed to refresh myself in the mountains. Familiar haunts beckoned, where I knew I could camp freely, light a fire and have the bush to myself. I would ride into the Watagan Mountains and then Yengo Wilderness, before descending to the coast on the third day. All too brief, but three days would be enough. After all, the direct route was one and a half hours by train.

On the first day, I was seeking a resting place I had found by happenstance many years ago. At that time, I had been exploring, looking for a space away from the breath of other human beings. As the light faded, I had turned up a dirt road, hoping for the best. It appeared as if made for me, in a corner of the bush with a magnificent view north-westward over the valley I call home.

Now I arrived, only to find that camping was no longer permitted in this spot. The arrow pointed to another place, without water and without toilets (and thus with much old toilet paper in the surrounding bush). But it did have one or two other campers, as well as a young man sitting by a fire next to an old caravan. He waved as I rode in, so I came over to say hello.

Less an intrepid mountain-biker using some makeshift accommodation on a cold night, he was at a loose end. He was squatting in the abandoned caravan, albeit with the claim that he had asked a friend to tow it up there. As he threw pieces of old foam rubber on a fire and lit another cigarette, he asked, ‘Pudding?’ I assumed he meant desert, but I declined and retreated to my tent, not quite taken with the unfamiliarity of the spot. I knew from then I would return only of necessity.

The next morning, I breakfasted at my old spot, lingering in saying farewell. By the time I was on the bike, I knew I would need to keep moving, for on winter days the sun is reluctant to hang around too long. Along familiar back roads I pedalled, through Ellalong, Wollombi, and Bucketty, until I turned onto the dirt track of the old Great North Road. On this day, I knew every curve, every rise and every drop.

As an old mood was upon me, the unfamiliarity of the smart phone began to assert itself. It provided nothing more than a glorified version of the Brownie Box Camera of half a century ago, yet it enabled me to see what I knew so well in a new way. The question became: how to take a selfie that was not self-indulgent? An oxymoron perhaps, but I recalled the old photographer’s advice that an ugly portrait is easy to make. Unwashed, unshaven, sweaty and wearing a brightly coloured bicycle helmet, it seemed that the task would be even easier.

I began to experiment. A late splash of sunlight through the trees; long shadows on the dirt track; angles from above and below; a look at or away from the camera; flick the camera direction and take a conventional shot; flick back and take another selfie. Less a proof I had been there, or even a set of poses for an Instagram account (God forbid), I realised that for decades I had been behind the camera taking shots of others. Rarely was I to be found in a photograph. Now it felt like my opportunity to catch up.

With no-one to share the photographs with, I began to enjoy myself. A couple of shots became a score, a score became a hundred. But what would I do with so many photographs? Later that evening, after pitching the tent, lighting a fire and cooking a meal, I perused the shots. The multiplication of the digital age was upon me, in the midst of the wilderness where I had no other electronic device. It was as though the sheer repetition of ones and zeros of digital codes unwittingly influenced the number of shots one took. Keep one’s finger pressed on any part of the screen and the camera reeled off shot after shot after shot. Yet, the solution was disarmingly simple: I deleted the majority and then perused the constantly varying flames of the fire.

Why delete so many? Was it too unfamiliar, so that I sought a way of controlling it? Perhaps. Yet the act itself was part of a larger and quite new strategy of the last year or so: to let go and excise so many parts of daily life. Fewer and fewer were the obligations, expectations, commitments and engagements. Email checking had become a process of deletion without reading them. Deadlines had largely disappeared, and so sleep had become peaceful and long. And I really would not be on a bicycle in the bush, taking three days to travel through the mountains to a destination that took me an hour and half on the train if I had pressing matters to complete or deadlines to meet. So used had I become to the buzz of constant, frenetic activity, that letting it go felt decidedly strange.

That evening I enjoyed a rare glass of wine, a dry white that I had never tasted before. But the strange wine joined a familiar meal when camping: two-minute noodles (or ‘convenient noodles’ as the Chinese call them), a can of red kidney beans and a can of tuna – all of them cooked together in a battered and black billy that doubled up as a bowl. A big feed for a hungry body, restocking for the energy needed in the morning. I also needed it for the night to come, for the weather was uncommonly cold.

On the next and final morning, I lit the fire for warmth, packing and dressing in between moments of warming my frozen fingers. By the time I was winding out along the dirt track from this remote corner, the unfamiliar had become part of me. Yet what seemed familiar had now been estranged.

The Best Cup of Coffee

I’m sitting in the corner feeling glad.

Got no money coming in but I can’t feel sad.

That was the best cup of coffee I ever had.

And I won’t worry about a thing,

Because we’ve got it made,

Here on the inside; outside’s so far away.

These are words from a little known song (at least these days) from 1970, simply called ‘Inside’. Yet they capture a particular intensely felt moment for me, and have done so since I first heard them many decades ago.

I no longer drink coffee, but I used to drink it with enthusiasm and with deep pleasure in my twenties – the same way I approached smoking. It helped my concentration while young children were being born and growing up around me. It helped me stay awake late at night while I continued studying. And it helped me unwind when I had a rare occasion to be away from other human beings.

Out of thousands, if not tens of thousands of cups of coffee, one has forever remained etched in bodily memory.

I was on a solo road trip through the mountains and narrow tracks of eastern Australia. Some parts were barely discernible, where no one had passed for many a year. Other parts left a dust trail billowing behind me. Other parts were worn, rocky and bumpy and required low gear. At nights I camped in remote places, with only dingoes and kangaroos for company. Together we chatted and smoked by the campfire late into the night.

On this particular day, the dirt track had been particularly slow and bumpy, with not another human being within the known distance. I was working my way through a mountain range, bump after jarring bump. By the time the sun was lowering, I began to wind my way down the western escarpment of the range.

A space opened up on the side of the road, with an old fireplace that beckoned me to stop a while. I lit a small fire, enough to boil some water in the blackened and knocked-about billy and make some coffee – as I had so often done before. Nothing fancy, but I poured it into an old and stained enamel cup and rolled a cigarette. I sat quietly on the ground and looked westward over the hills and plains as the sun set, drawing on the smoke and sipping the coffee.

I am not sure quite what it was. Was it the taste of an old and unwashed billy? Was it the fire that burned with eucalyptus wood? Was it the end of a weary and dusty day of driving? Was it the taste of tobacco newly rolled along with the coffee? Or perhaps the view from the height and the joy of being away from other human beings? Probably all of the above, but they still do not capture the feeling. I still recall the taste of that coffee and the act of sipping calmly while the world lay there before me.

It remains the best cup of coffee I have ever had. To be sure, I have tasted fancy, crafted coffees since then. I have bought my own coffee beans and ground them myself. Indeed, I have drunk thousands of cups of coffee since.

But none have been able to come close.

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.

Before Creation: Hiking the Great North Walk

The light was gone. I had a stark choice: camp here in the dense bush, with half a bottle of water to last the night and morning; or push on with a sliver of torchlight.

The torch it was, to help me avoid twisted tree roots, clamber over tumbling boulders, and negotiate wet and slippery footsteps beneath seeping rock-faces.

After that decision, I had little time to ponder anything – apart from the identifying the next twist in the track, or indeed finding the track itself. Often it all but disappeared in the gloom. The moon may have been out above the trees. But here, in the dense foliage, the only light was my slender torch.

On this bone-chilling evening in the middle of winter, I was forced to take it easy, treading carefully, a marked change from my rush to beat the light not long before. Now my mind began to work again, pondering the simplicity of light and dark. I felt I was returning to basics, to the mythical first moment of creation when light is separated from primal darkness.

Darkness and Light

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‘And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good. And God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day’.

This simple but all-pervasive awareness of light and dark was one of the two experiences that etched themselves most deeply into my consciousness. By this stage of a long day, I had already hiked almost 25 kilometres – about the limit for my ageing legs as they bore a pack full of camping gear, clothes and food. That day was part of a larger whole, for it was the second last day of a two week hike: the Great North Walk from Newcastle to Sydney. For years I have felt the invitation to do the hike, beckoned by a sign near my home in Newcastle. It reads: ‘Great North Walk. Sydney Cove – 250 km’. I have dreamed of it over the years. And since I have covered the distance in nearly every other way – train, bus, car, bicycle – why not walk? Yet it is far tougher than those other means, winding through the bush, up and down every mountain in sight, over every slippery rock, and through the densest forest you can possibly find. Precipitously rugged – the words can barely catch the bodily feel of the hike. Walk that distance?

I had decided to undertake the hike in winter, with its long nights and short days. Nights on the mountain tops required a winter sleeping bag inside my small tent, along with multiple layers of wool on my body. I like to sleep warm, toasty even, for then my mind and body close down for a lengthy sleep. But the darkness began almost too soon, usually within half an hour of finding a campsite. Just enough time to decide on the optimum place for my tent, to let the sweat dry so that I could don my warm night-gear. As the last of light went – before 17.00 – I lit a fire to cook up a magnificent repast of dried peas, tuna and mashed potato.

Soon enough I learnt to avoid the well-used camping spots in the damp clefts of valleys and ridges. Leeches and a dripping tent in the morning made for less than pleasant overnight stays. Instead, I preferred the dry and less frequented ridge-tops and their hard ground. Here was space for perhaps two or three tents and a small campfire. Here was a more open bush and here I could lie beneath the vast canopy of stars. The mornings with their cool winds would leave the tent dry and ready to pack. Of course, no water is to be found in such places, which both keeps them under-utilised and more attractive. So I had to make sure my water bottles had been filled at a stream before arrival.

But what does one do on a long night of fourteen hours? We have become so accustomed to trying to defeating the darkness, to banish it with all-pervasive lighting. But our efforts are feeble, creating little pockets of light in the surrounding gloom. Only a creator God can make a permanent change to the surrounding darkness. Even in this case the blackness of night is primary, the state of the cosmos before light is created. So I found myself enjoying the darkness, and my body responded. A simple meal, a bush wash (a corner of a cloth dipped in water), and brushing of teeth take up only so much time. I would check the map by torchlight for the next day and sit for a while watching the embers of the fire die down. But with such an early sunset, I was snuggled in my sleeping bag by 19.00 and asleep five minutes later. Occasionally I would wake very early, perhaps after nine hours sleep and well before any glimmer of light. For I moment I would ponder a pre-dawn start on the day, but as soon as I pulled the sleeping bag tighter around me, I would fall asleep for another three hours. With sleep like that, it takes little time for the body to become attuned to first light and the sound of birds trying to warm their chilled bodies.

The best light is God’s light. I was up quickly, keeping on the warm clothes of the night while I break camp and have a quiet breakfast – of dried fruit and nuts. In fact, the chill remained well into the morning, so that only much later did I strip down, pull off my woollen long johns, and don my hiking shirt, now well dried from the sweat of the previous day. Yet in winter the sun gave me no more than ten hours of hiking. More than enough, it seemed in the early morning as I strode along refreshed and eager. But the sun had a strange habit of staying low and racing towards the horizon, especially in its last few hours. At times I paced myself well. With plenty of distance covered in the morning, I could ease up in the afternoon and know that the sun would not beat me to the camping spot. But at other times, I aimed a little too far. Then I found myself racing the sun’s light, sprinting up mountains and stumbling down them to ensure I arrived before its light faded. And on that second last night, it well and truly beat me, leaving me with an hour or more of deep darkness before my destination for the night.

Empty Mind

An empty mind may well be a second key feature of the moment of creation, a return to the primeval state before thought is formed. I first noticed – if I can put it that way – my empty mind on the third day of the hike. It was an afternoon, when I would typically tire of the steep climbs and sharp drops, when I began to sense that my feet had had enough, when I automatically put one foot in front of the other with little thought for what is to come. All of a sudden, I had a thought. I do not recall the thought, but at the time I was struck by the fact that it was actually a thought. Or rather, I became aware that this was the first thought that had come to my mind in more than two hours.

Until that moment, my mind had been completely empty of any thought whatsoever. Normally, my mind is full to overflowing. A crucial part of hiking, day after day, is that my mind may run freely. Thrillingly pleasant and completely unpleasant thoughts run across one another without hindrance. I revisit old arguments and win them. I recall journeys once made, places where I stopped and camped, even retracing in detail the trails once followed. I talk to trees, thanking one for giving me some dropped wood for a fire or another tree for taking care of my pack as I lean it up against the trunk. As I become older, I have ever richer memory tracks, conjuring up moments I thought forever forgotten.

But I have rarely had an empty mind. Once that solitary thought had come and gone on the third day of hiking, my mind became empty once again. Half a day it continued – blank. The next day was the same, and the next. In the mornings, I went through the routine of packing the tent and sleeping gear without any thought for what I was doing. The evenings were the same, with pitching camp, lighting a fire and cooking a meal.

The day after I had finished my mountain hiking, some thoughts began to return. Above all, I wondered about – indeed, I marvelled at – my experience of an empty mind. Was it exhaustion, when all my energy was devoted to finding water, to determining how much food remained, to making it to the next camping spot? Not really, since I was not that exhausted. Normally, tiredness brings out old annoyances and arguments, even people with whom I no longer have any contact (in fact, I see little point in maintaining any contact whatsoever with such people). Out on a trail, I clear those annoyances from my system, leaving them beside the trail as I hike on. By contrast, the empty mind was akin to the effects of meditation. My body’s repetitive acts, of walking for hours on end, brought my mind to a state of complete calm. Not an easy achievement in a time of information overload and endless stimulus, of massive diaries and appointments to keep. But it is one I wish to achieve again.

Solitude

I must confess to a third primal experience: solitude. I may have passed by the tent of a weirdo who liked to pitch it in the midst of the track and stay for days. But we did not speak to one another. I may have met a beautiful woman with a sad face, but we uttered barely a word for we both sought solitude for our own reasons. Mine was sheer pleasure and release. Away from other human beings, words become minimal, the needs of life basic, the issues fundamental. So accustomed do I become to my own company that I find it difficult to communicate with others when I emerge. The prattle of company becomes unnecessary and trivial.

I mean of course solitude in relation to other human beings, for I had plenty of other company: the wallaby, initially startled at our encounter but then intrigued enough to stop for a longer look; the wombat taking a dump on a flat stone (as is their wont), who quietly finished what he had to do as I strolled by; the curious lyrebird in a remote corner, who had obviously not read the textbook that says lyrebirds are immensely shy of human beings; the towering trees in the temperate rainforest, whom I slapped affectionately and with whom I shared a story concerning light and dark, an empty mind and solitude.

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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