Another Way of Being

The bicycle’s invitation is too strong and insistent: before I know it I am off pedalling again for a few days in the bush. It is early April, the weather steady, wind at my back, the cares of this world dumped soon enough. Nothing like hours on a bicycle, or for that matter sitting by a campfire, to clear the head, let your mind freely associate (as the subconscious does its work), to gain a sense once again of another way of being.

The winds are from the south-east; I decide to reverse the direction of the ride so they are on my back. My route takes me into the Watagan Mountains out the back of Newcastle, and then on along the old convict road to Wollombi, through to Broke and its wineries, Denman’s farms, Muswellbrook’s coal mines, and the horse studs of Scone. Too short of course, but time passes slowly when you enjoy every moment.

I ride through land that struggles for identity, between aboriginal heritage areas, cattle stations, wineries, coal mines, and the increasing pressure to ‘frack’ for gas and extract oil from shale. Conservative farmers become politically active and protest, throwing up banners and leading angry marches. Abandoned shacks and rust-holed water tanks stand on the edges of vast open-cut coal mines. Wineries with their bourgie clientele sit cheek-by-jowl with working-class mining towns at the foothills of the mountains. And the bush tries to hold its own against forces that would encroach. In all this, the paradox is that aboriginal areas are identified and protected through the mining EPAs – not from the pastoralists and vignerons.

But it is my valley, my upper Hunter.

Beings

The endless subspecies of homo sapiens sapiens never cease to amaze me, and, on the intensely felt experiences of a ride, they appear in many shapes and sizes. It may be a husky-voiced barmaid at a pub and the cerebral-palsy regular. It may be the grey nomads at a camping spot (Broke) by the river. They have been long on the road: quick set-up of camp, a walk, chat, early bed and up before dawn. Over they come to talk, he with a gold tooth in a tanned face and a shifty grin; she a beauty in her elder years.

Later I stop to light a fire and boil a billy along a back road and opposite a weathered shack. Before long an ancient rust-bucket puffs and pants down the driveway and a man emerges to stare. It is not so much the sagging gut and man-boobs in the filthy blue t-shirt that draw my gaze, as the sagging jowls, no-chin and gaping mouth. I call a greeting across the road; he grunts back. With visions of unmentionable redneck amusements visited upon passing cyclists, I hurriedly finish my tea and am on my way.

Then there are the dogs. Every farm has one or more. Most are working dogs, out with the cattle by day, exhausted by night. But not all, for there is always an odd dog, lazing about, bored and unchained. What could be better than chasing a lone cyclist? So it was on a quiet stretch of road out the back of Denman. Three dogs; three snarling chases; three sprints at over 40 km/h. Thankfully, I had a strong tailwind, but at times I really wish I had a gun. What better way to get the adrenalin pumping and the kilometres to fly past?

At Wollombi I took a crap beneath a new bridge, only to have a kangaroo bound out of the bush nearby.

Another Way

Human beings and their others are endlessly fascinating, but I take great pleasure in my own company. Only then do I begin to sense another way of being. But what draws me onto that sense, into a way that I leave reluctantly?

Is it the overhanging tree, away from the road, shading an open space where I boil a billy? A few twigs are all it takes to heat a little water. So I rest the bike and my legs, gather the twigs, fill the billy and crouch over the small fire while it boils. I sip the tea while the fire dies down, looking out over the bush, or perhaps across the mountains and valleys if I have just completed a climb, or perhaps down the road I still have to ride.

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Is it the happenstance camping spot, amongst some trees and by a lookout over my valley? Once found, I come here often, since few know of it. An old fireplace cooks my meals and keeps me warm on a chilly night. Water is a trickle, but enough for a quick wash and for cooking. The tent sits expectantly, beckoning me inside, to stretch in a warm sleeping bag and sleep for long hours (often more than ten when I am riding). The quiet sounds of the bush remind me that it is full of life – ants, bugs, snakes, wallabies, birds, goannas, not to mention a good number of ferals as well. Feng shui the Chinese call it, the geomancy of wind-water. Translated, it is a way of expressing the inexpressible, the certain feel that a place gives you, the way you sigh with pleasure on arrival, nodding quietly to yourself.

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Is it the sitting long by a slow fire? Like a television, a fire at night draws and holds one’s gaze for hours. But television has really usurped the place of the fire, except that television numbs the minds, while a fire triggers all manner of thoughts. So the mind can tumble, associate, reconnect … and draw one into the memory tracks. Singular times that are life-changing: an unexpected person or place that leaves its mark forever; a tough time that leaves you wiser rather than bitter (hopefully); people whom you are deeply glad to have met, others you wish you had never met at all; a voyage to distant lands never seen before; a weeks-long cycle ride through one’s ancestral home … Before the embers fade, I am always fast asleep in my tent.

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Is it the sharpness of bodily memory when the body is engaged in the same actions as when those memories were laid down? When cycling, I recall viscerally turns, climbs, roads, forests, plains, and towns from earlier rides. It may be the weary crawl into town, in sodden clothes and with numbed feet, after a climb into the ranges, or perhaps the recall triggered by that turn – the one that begins the best stretch of road in the world. It may be the ride into a camping spot, when the whole layout in all its detail is already clearly in my mind, or perhaps the magnificent old pine overlooking a ploughed field, which evokes Ernst Bloch’s utopian image of the yellow light in a farmhouse across the ploughed field at night.

2011 April 030a

Is it the fact that all I need in the world may be packed into two modest rear panniers on a bicycle? Tent, sleeping bag, air mat, clothes, book, maintenance tools, spares, water bottles, eating implements and food – not so much, really. I guess if you can’t carry it with you easily, it isn’t worth lugging along.

As Marshall Sahlins once said: ‘There are after all two roads to satisfaction, to reducing the gap between means and ends: producing much or desiring little’.

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The Quiet Way

It was a ride long on desire and hope, but until now short of realisation: to make my way through the mountains and wilderness from Newcastle to Sydney. Many options are open for such a ride, closer to the coast and closer to the main roads. But they are often noisy and busy, full of trucks and cars in their rush, drivers and passengers craning forward to destinations that cannot come quickly enough.

I sought the quiet way, along winding roads, up and down mountains, seeking isolated places to camp where my only companions were cold water and a fire. The route (320 km) took me west into the Watagan Mountains, the Yengo wilderness and then down via the Hawkesbury River. Parts would include the Great North Road, built by slave (convict) labour in the 1830s, the first road in the colony between Sydney and the Hunter Valley. Parts would take me along rough, twisting dirt tracks, and parts up steep climbs and whooping drops.

Places

As a result, the ride is full of unexpected, solitary and stunning places in the bush. They begin with Hunter Lookout, high on a cliff in the Watagans. Its well-nigh utopian appeal increases with each pedal of a tough, tough ride on the first day, especially since I had hit the road with not many kilometres in my legs. Towards the end of the seemingly endless concertina of climbs, I haul my bike – with camping gear, clothes, food and even a book – up a few kilometres of precipitous dirt track.

My arms may have been dislocated, my knees grazed from slipping in the rough gravel at impossible angles, some vital parts may have suffered permanent injury, but it is always worth it. High up on a cliff edge, your eye is irresistibly drawn to the valley and mountains spread out below. My valley, the mighty Hunter Valley with its deep ranges on either side, its coal mines with some of the highest grade coal in the world, its horse studs, dairy and beef cattle farms, alternative farmers and stunning wilderness. I pause long to watch the subtle changes in the light as the sun set – and then have to pitch camp in fading light.

Or Mogo Creek in the Yengo Wilderness, my stop for the next night. Externally, there is nothing stunning about this place: it is a nondescript little corner in the bush, sitting on a saddle between two mountains. Yet each time I arrive and pause, drinking in the spot. Is it the lie of the land, gently running down to a simple shelter? Is it the shelter itself, evoking single room cabins with a chimney rising up from the fireplace – for heating and warmth? Is it the fact that I will soon share the space with bush wallabies quietly coming out for their evening feed? Is it the appeal of a simple life, far away from the madding crowd, from internet and phones, the rush of vehicles, people unquestionably tied to the deadening routine of work and leisure? Or is it the layers of memory that the place evokes?

An alternative to Mogo is The Basin, barely a dozen kilometres down the road – the operative word being ‘down’. Seven kilometres of precipitous dirt, threatening to send one sliding off the edge at any moment, hands cramping from the grip on smoking brakes. Go in summer or autumn and the chance is high that walkers or trail-bikers will also be there. Go in winter and the place is your own. Luxuries include pit toilets and very, very fresh water from the tank. As the winter light fades, I move quickly: tent up, bike wiped down, a brief wash, layers of winter wool, firewood gathered in the last glimmer of light, a billy on. And just when the meal is finally ready, which I eat huddling close to the fire, I jump and almost lose the entire meal. Barely 30cm away a possum sits and stares at me. No amount of yelling (from fright) sends it packing. It simply looks at me as if to say: who the hell are you and what are you doing here? It would keep me company for the next few hours.

Or Kulnura Café, a tumbling stop beside the road on the next day’s ride. Each time I think, nah, I have lunch with me; I can stop down the road. But each time my front tyre gains a mind of its own and, no matter how much I try to pull the other way, it turns into the cafe. The place is run by a 30-something couple of Chinese background with the broadest Aussie accents. And they make some of the best pies, sausage rolls and quiches in the universe. Lamb, beef and chicken are standards, but you also find chicken, camembert and cranberry, or curried spinach, or rabbit sausage rolls, or … I am not the only one who appreciates this extraordinary place. Ageing bikies stop here in swarms, with their limps, grey beards and massive guts designed the rest snugly on the bike petrol tank – and that’s just the women. Here too are tradies, truckies, road gangs and anyone with half an excuse. The massive feed here usually keeps me fuelled for the rest of the day.

My last night finds a rare corner closer to Sydney – Mill Creek in Dharug National Park. I was last here in a beaten-up Morris Major Elite in 1979. It was my first camping trip on my own, although my parents turned up to spoil the fun. Tall trees in the mist, a fire in the dusk, a toughening wash beside the water tank, a long read by torchlight. Mill Creek can be stinking hot with swarms of mosquitoes in mid-summer, for it sits deep in a precipitous sandstone valley that traps the summer heat. But in the cooler months it is a great place that attracts few – which suits me fine.

Daily Rhythms

What is the daily pattern like on days of long riding, of cycling for hours on end? Surprisingly, the time in the saddle is restricted to perhaps five or six hours. I ride within myself – usually – saving my legs for the inevitable long climbs in granny gear. My preference is to take frequent breaks, whether for a piss, a billy of tea, a massive feed, a photograph, a pause for a view or a quirky item on the side of the road. Either end of the day is taken up with setting up and breaking camp. With the few items I carry – all contained in two panniers – the process is simple enough: one-person tent, self-inflating airbed, sleeping-bag, billy, food and book out, torch, pocket knife in pockets, camera at the ready. Breaking camp takes a little longer, for each item has its snug corner in which to be packed. All the while my mind tumbles and I am happy to let it do so. Annoyances processed, memories evoked, passions expressed, plans hatched, all connected via freewheeling word association that enable a vital unwinding and reorientation.

Summer may have its sweat, heat and flies. But winter has its own challenges apart from the shorter periods of daylight, among which the wash is the most perversely enjoyable. Why? All I ever have is a cup and an unreliable supply of what feels like melt-water. Quickly and bracingly I splash water all over myself – gasping and yodelling in a curious chorus for the animals about (no humans interrupt my ablutions). The key is to get wet and soaped up quickly, for then there is no going back. The soap must be rinsed off carefully with a good number of cups of this freezing substance. They become easier to bear, although I am not sure whether that is due to my increasing toughness or the fact that my body is going into hypothermic mode, focussing blood and warmth in the core regions and leaving the peripherals to fend for themselves. The family jewels certainly think so, doing their best to retract as far as possible.

But the bulk of the day is taken up with sleep. The early sunsets of winter are a blessing, for with bone weariness from the ride the warm sleeping bag in the tent seduces me soon enough. On this ride I was in bed by 7 pm and fell asleep instantly. The catch was that I had finally acquired a decent sleeping bag – after many decades of stinginess and ineffective pretenders. Expecting a cold night and familiar with my ancient sleeping bag, I dressed warmly before zipping myself up – only to wake up covered with sweat a couple of hours later. Adjustments, fine-tuning, stripping naked, leaving the zip half undone, I finally acclimatised to my first real sleeping bag that would actually keep me warm and toasty on a cold night. And it packs into a tiny ball for the bike panniers. Eleven hours later I woke at first light and busting to get on the road.

Roads

What keeps me cycling, seeking out long-haul rides in rugged mountains? All of the above would count, but ultimately it is the search for the glorious stretch of road, what may be called the Road Absolute. A good, steep climb, a whooping downhill, a long straight that disappears into the horizon … My legs feel fresh and powerful, the bike sleek and smooth, the sun is on my shoulder, a breeze cools my face and the bush includes me as one its own. Yet all these fade into the background in light of the total absorption of such moments, a deeply felt experience that makes one forget the crappy roads full of traffic and cuts away the dross and façade of what passes for ‘normal’ life.

This route has a good number of these stretches of road – a rare feature, since most long hauls have but one or two. Some are always so, such as the run from Bucketty to Kulnura. The road is hilly, the cars are few, the trees enclose you, the wilderness absorbs you. To the right are glimpses of Mt. Yengo, as important to the coastal aborigines in these parts as Uluru is to the central tribes. Whenever I see its flat top – where Biame leapt to the heavens after his stretch of creativity – I offer a small prayer. I am an ecumenist, after all.

Another such stretch is the River Road, from Wiseman’s Ferry to Sackville. An undulating run of some 40 km, it follows the twists of the Hawkesbury River upstream. Long loops of the river greet me at a turn, rocky sandstone overhangs threaten to drop on me at any moment, hairpins and sharps climbs then seek to scale another of these outcrops. On this road, I realise its iconic status only after crossing the ferry at Sackville and meeting the traffic on its run to Sydney.

Occasionally these roads depend far more on my frame of mind and the day itself. The others may be as enjoyable in stinking summer heat or driving winter rains, but the Sandy Creek Road earlier on the ride can vary. I have ridden it in oppressive heat, hit my wall on it and been buzzed by weekend traffic. But on this day, the road sings to me, the spokes spin in the morning light, the villages roll by, and 50 km is done before I realise.

These moments are summed up by one of those chance meetings between cyclists. I meet a couple of 60-something riders out for a day and I ask them whether the ferry down the road a little is running.

‘It should be running today’, says one of them. ‘Its maintenance day is the first Wednesday of the month’.

‘What day is it? I ask.

‘Fantastic!’ Says the other. ‘That’s a happy cyclist. The sun is shining and he doesn’t know what day it is …’

Old Roads, Old Memories

Unlike other rides, this one follows old roads, with layers of old memories. I have ridden and driven sections of it in different ways for three decades, although I have never ridden the full route as I did now. There I had raced a one-time riding buddy, more than a decade ago, up a steep hill. There I camped with a large and noisy gathering of young children, ex-wife who tolerated camping at best, and not-so-old parents. There I stopped for a long and slow cigar. There I camped for the first time on my own after a driving a beaten up car all day. There I rode on the day before one of my sons almost died in a house fire. There is the winery (Tizzana) where a horde of cyclists descended for a massive feed after a frisky spring ride. There my father used to drive, on a twisting, quiet ride on their way to ‘little England’ (Mt. Wilson) in the Blue Mountains. And there is the turn to the place where my heart is often drawn no matter where I have been in the world.

As day follows day, the question of memory keeps returning. Is it a sense of ‘things change, don’t they’? Or is it a sense of passing, one that anticipates the passing of the future as much as the past? I am following the tracks of life of more than a decade ago, intensely felt and experienced at the time. Do I miss that time, that life, with its highs and lows? So much has happened in the long years since, so that it really feels like two or three lives ago. Do I wish to return to it? Do I lament a better life past? None of these questions touches on the core of my response. Instead, it is the intense desire to recall the way I felt then, the immediacy of life at an everyday level. In the effort to recall those senses and experiences, I recognise the welcome distance from those earlier lives, along with the complex pleasures of memory itself.

Mines, Bricks and Chook-Poo: A Hunter Ride

Nothing quite beats setting off on a bicycle – with a chance to light a fire, boil a billy and think. I had six days in between the rush of changing lives, so there was no question as to what I would do: take to some steep, winding, country roads for about 430 km, from Scone to Newcastle.

So I slipped onto the 3.51 a.m. Scone train. 3.51? A.m.? Sunday morning? Of course, it’s the drug and alcohol post-party train, although by the time I got to Scone the last of the revellers had fallen off at stations along the way.

Scone’s claim to fame is that it is the horse capital of Australia. Fine if you like horses, but I was keen to get riding – but not down the highway. On a bike the back way becomes a blessing. It may be a few kilometres further than the busy highway, but the absence of traffic is worth a fortune. I was to find such back roads a few times on this ride, the best ones being the forgotten tracks. A single lane of bitumen, barely wide enough for a car, saying loudly and clearly that it was made for me and my ilk – a bike track through the hills, bush and farmland.

Later on that first day I found that track on the run into Denman, but a little earlier the back road out of Scone came close. It was full of horse studs, many, many flies, and an 11-year old girl on a bicycle of her own. At the roadward end of the farm track, she watched me pass with a question in her eye: from where had I come and where was I going? What is out there in the wider world? She reminded me a small boy who looked at me longingly in the remote town of Bombala a couple of years ago, willing himself to be older so he could follow the road out of town. I know that look and that longing, for I too have lived as a child in small country towns, full of the appeal of known communities, of their support for their own and exclusion of outsiders, of genuine concern, perpetual intrigue and endless gossip. But some long to take the road out of town and see what the world really is like.

The blond, curly-haired girl out the back of Scone did in fact follow me on the road for a few moments. I had stopped to check my map, so she pedalled up a few hundred metres and asked me if I needed some help. ‘Is that Muswellbrook over there?’ I asked, pointing to a town on the hill. ‘No, that’s Aberdeen’, she said. ‘But if you keep going along this road and turn left, you’ll get to Muswellbrook’. With a thankyou I was off. And so would she, I guessed, in a few years.

The first day might have been brilliant, with the cold beer in the pub at Denman, the old man who greeted me there with ‘Didn’t I see you in Muswellbrook?’ and even with the glorious camping spot by the creek and its welcoming party of mosquitoes, but the next day was a bitch. I felt like I was playing a lottery in which I couldn’t win. My best option was to get one out of three evils. Out of heat (it was 40 degrees), incessant flies and a gale-force head wind, I had won the wind. In its favour was the fact I kept coolish and that the flies had no chance of landing on me. But I had to grind away in gears usually reserved for steep climbs.

Singleton appeared too slowly out of the hills, but on the way I was gobsmacked by the coal mines. I have been in Singleton on a few occasions, daily I see the trains and trucks and conveyor belt bringing to coal to Newcastle, where up to 50 ships wait off the headland to haul coal to China. But the hugeness of the mines can only be experienced. Whole country-sides swept away, mountains full of coal seams blown apart, vast shovels digging, monster trucks carting, and the roads full of young miners on high pay packets. The old rural town of Singleton is now a booming mining town and the prices show it – I paid far more for basic foodstuffs than anywhere I have been for a while.

In a quiet corner of the camp ground I met Rob, who had come from WA to drive massive cranes over this way. There is an even greater job shortage here, he said. And they say they need 40,000 more people over the next couple of years. Hunter and WA mining are the reason why Australia avoided a recession in the economic crisis of 2008-9; forget the government’s economic stimulus package, since China wants our raw materials.

Eventually, the mines will run out of coal, the land will be rehabilitated and once again there will be hills and trees and grasslands (different ones than before), but I couldn’t wait a century or more, so I pedalled off to Gresford and Dungog. A great road, with its pick-a-plank bridges, villages, decent climbs and drops as you pass into the mountains. Here it was that I was asked if I had a rooster for sale, since the sign said they were wanted. Having no rooster on me just then, I had to pass up the opportunity. But I did manage to do better in the lottery, for the wind and heat had dropped and the flies had fled to seek more promising pastures.

Apart from a great pub where you can stay for next to nothing, Gresford is a country town that boasts a camping ground out the back of the showground and next to the swimming hole, expects you to light an open fire when you camp instead of those wimpy electric barbeques, and it still has – unlike the thirsty cities – handles on all the outdoor taps. And in Gresford I was helped out with my lunch fire by a grizzled man from the road crew which had stopped for lunch. Seeing that I was having trouble lighting the fire, he limped over and poured kerosene onto the wood. ‘Here’, he said, ‘and these rags’ll burn well for while’. I might have produced a billowing cloud of black smoke but the billy boiled soon enough.

The final climb to Dungog over Bingleburra is a grind in granny gear, but I don’t mind a good hill: get in gear, get in rhythm and eventually you make the top. It helps when you get drenched on the way up (why else is this part temperate rainforest?) to keep cool. And the drop down the other side is whooping, exhilarating mountain man stuff.

Still pumped, I flew into Dead Dog, aka Dungog, once a backwater no-one would dream of visiting, but now just beginning to emulate Lazarus. Day Four was to be a short ride, a hop over the range to Stroud (in lieu of a rest day). I hit the road earlyish, but already the road stuck to me every now and then, or rather my tyres. The hottest day of my ride so far had begun to melt the bitumen in parts, making small sucking noises as my wheels rolled over them.

Already pouring sweat, feeling the effects of the previous day’s climbing, I hit a tough climb within a few kilometres. It was simply a struggle all the way to the top. Country roads may be quiet, leaving you to your thoughts and spinning spokes, but they usually cut over the tough mountain passes, have rickety one-lane bridges, and patchwork surfaces that rattle the teeth out of your head. That’s why I love them so much.

Stroud was my destination for the night, a village where you could camp beside the showground for absolutely nothing. Here too you could light a fire – beats TV any night, I reckon. But first I had to find some food. A small grocery shop and a pub were my choices. In the first I grabbed a large bottle of what turned out to be disgusting creaming soda and some bread. On my way out I spotted a five cent piece and, as is my wont, picked it up. ‘I saw that too’, said an old woman in front of me. ‘But you keep it’, she smiled, ‘it’s good luck’. At the door of the second I met a man, stumbling up the steps from his Ute (a pickup). Tired, I guessed, time for a beer. A few minutes later he staggered out again, almost fell down the stairs and wove his way back to his vehicle, another bottle of beer under his arm. It took him a while to get the Ute started, before which he rolled half way down the hill. Finally he got going; I decided to give him a good fifteen minutes so I wouldn’t have to meet him on the road.

But Stroud also boasts an annual brick-throwing contest (I missed it), a solitary cyclist known as Tom (he came up and greeted me at 7am in the morning), and old fogeys who like walking around the showground at sunrise. I can vouch for the latter, since as I staggered out of my tent – the one I made with my father when I was 16 – the next morning in nothing but my undies, four of the local fossils greeted me enthusiastically on their morning walk and gossip.

But that next day was brilliant. I found my climbing legs again for another mountain pass, stopped at the top for a fire, billy and tea, and then dropped like a stone down the other side. At the thriving Bulahdelah I watched an old man trying to teach a silly dog how to swim, bought a massive lunch from a man with a Sikh turban, and then plunged into the mosquito infested Myall Lakes National Park.

I always feel like I’m on my way when a ride evokes former journeys and triggers plans for a new one. As I rode along the lakes, fighting off swarms of mosquitoes, I recalled an earlier trip down this road; then it was rough as guts and almost destroyed the old car I was driving. I remembered that my father, who died only six months before, had loved getting into the country and camping whenever he could, finding places much the way I do. And I began dreaming of a ride around Australia – 20,000 km through extensive deserts.

The spot for my last night backed onto the beach. There was no drinking water, so I carried in my own. But the ocean was the place to rinse off the sticky sweat, soak some muscles and enjoy entirely on my own and entirely naked. Fortified with tropical-strength mozzie-repellent, I cooked over a fire and watched it fade into the night.

Too soon it was the last day, but I had chosen a route that gave me an hour in an old boat – euphemistically called a ‘ferry’ – across Port Stephens (from Tea Gardens to Nelson Bay), before the run home. At the quiet Tea Gardens, young boys would run their boats as though they were bicycles. I preferred simply to sit and watch for dolphins. But I knew I was still in the country on the last stretch to home when I was introduced to the hamlet of Salt Ash with the sign, ‘Chook Poo at round-a-bout’. Now of course I already am planning the next ride – longer of course.

Lenin in the Upper Hunter

In lives too busy and with too many demands, we jumped at the chance to go bicycle touring for a few days, longing for the simple rhythms of thinking about nothing more than the spinning spokes of a bicycle wheel, about the next feed, the next climb, the next piss, the next shower and bed at the end of the day. Our destination: the ‘hills’ on the edges of the Hunter Valley, up Gresford, Dungog and Stroud way. We slept in old pubs that charged next to nothing and reminded me of my boyhood in country towns.

I am always astounded at how rich the experiences of a few days can be: on this three-day ride they included memories of my dead father preaching, the campest gay man I have met, with his fluffy pink cowboy hat serving drinks behind the bar, a farmer with impossibly white teeth and a ‘strange’ smile, ‘law-and-order’ country style, and some absolutely gut-busting climbs and whooping drops – all these experiences and more at our doorstep! In any other place in the world, places like this would make you feel like you were in another country. Here they are barely 50 km away.

The first day, from Newcastle to East Gresford via Paterson, was a late March stinker: 32 degrees in the shade and 45 on the road. Our riding legs were not quite with us yet, so the long stops for a fire and billy of tea were welcome, as was the slow litre of ginger ale at Vacy while we watched the locals go about their daily lives: a woman with a massive coif emerging from the ‘Cowlick’ salon (a shed at the back of the general store); the woman in the shop boasting of her five children in five years; and beside the road a roo resting from the heat, disturbed by our passing. As far as he was concerned, cars and trucks were obviously fine, but bicycles and voices not – he resettled about fifty metres away.

Yet a sizeable chunk of the day was spent – unexpectedly – thinking of my father. On a back road I spied the towering Presbyterian Church of Patterson, hard by the railway bridge. I have worshipped in there! I recalled the panelled pulpit of an old church, the towering windows, the high iron bars holding the timber structure together, the small vestry, the aged Presbyterian hymn books, the magnificent pews and those utterly useless radiators half-way up the walls. But I also recalled my father leading worship and preaching there of a Sunday evening once per fortnight, often playing the organ as well with his great flourishing finales, of a youth group that meant so much to me worshiping there. More than three decades ago: he was my age, still seeming to enjoy life, always on the lookout for his ideal country parish that seemed to be one more church away.

Back to the ride: with leaden legs and red faces we puffed into East Gresford, soaked up a long shower … and were informed no food was available in town.

‘Except’, said the publican, ‘two supreme pizzas at Dot’s shop up the road’. He phoned and asked, ‘Do you want them?’

‘Does the pope tuck his pants in with a shoehorn’, I thought.

Soon enough Ron at the bar put down his beer and drove me over, although I had to compete with the beloved dog for space.

‘We don’t get much trouble up here’, Ron said. ‘And if we do, we know soon enough who it is’.

I laughed. ‘Just like when I was growing up – in towns like this’.

‘Oh, they try’, he said. ‘Especially at the show. Blokes from Raymond Terrace or Newcastle might try to stir things up. But we snuff it out soon enough and they don’t get far’.

Later in the evening I fell into a dead sleep pondering the benefits and drawbacks of country ‘law-and-order’.

Our second day, eastward across two mountain ranges and the Dungog Valley to Stroud, demanded not merely riding legs, but mountain-climbing legs. We had one massive mountain climb and few very decent ‘hills’ to climb. Mountains are deceptively easy if you refrain from pedalling like mad to get to the top and restrict yourself to a cadence that is well within your capabilities – or so the wisdom goes. It all gets tossed aside on really serious climbs: now the next revolution of a pedal is a major achievement, even with a gutful of liquorice for ‘energy’. At last, at long last, the top of the climb arrives … and nothing quite compares with the 8 km drop on the other side, whooping by vistas of green hills and mountains, gorges and valleys.

Dungog was our lunch stop. ‘Dead Dog’, they used to call it: a country town that felt much the same year after year (and I have been coming here on and off for more than three decades). But today I noticed again the changes of the last couple of years: a new lick of paint here and there, a cafe or three, newer cars, glistening real estate agents. The city mob had found Dungog at last, finding here an ‘untouched’ country town; except that by their arrival they change it and thereby remove what was appealing (the anthropologist’s curse). Stroud, our destination for the day, may have become such a town many years ago, especially since it was on a main drag and not at the end of the road. But now it was Dungog’s turn.

One more ‘hill’ – another mountain really – and we rolled wearily into Stroud. Only to be greeted by perhaps the campest barman I have ever met. Behind the bar at the Central Hotel he winked and purred and tilted his pink cowboy hat with tassels. ‘A room?’ he said. ‘Of course’, and jiggled his hat some more. He was obviously good for business, since the whole town seemed to have congregated in this massive establishment.

He was certainly better company than the bearded farmer with a strange glistening smile who came over to chat on the next day – south-east on the coastal push, via Medowie and the Stockton ferry home. On a relatively easy day with an increasing headwind across the coastal flats to home, we had stopped beneath a stunning Morton Bay fig for a drink and snack. Before long the farmer appeared – smiling very widely indeed. ‘I thought one of my calves was caught in the barbed wire’, he said. ‘Those bicycles look like calves at a distance’. I was reminded of the sign at the pub: ‘It you think the bar staff are beautiful, don’t drive – you’ve had too much’. We were on our way quickly.

Back in Stroud: we found our room past the faded piano covered in bird shit, up the swaying staircase, and through double doors that opened onto the balcony. The best view in town! But what has all this got to do with Lenin, the leader of the Russian Revolution? In the late afternoon sun, I pulled out a volume of Lenin’s Collected Works (45 volumes in total). Feet up on the cast-iron railing, looking out over the town and the hills, I read Lenin. I had done the same in East Gresford, and briefly in Dungog, wandering if this was the first time Lenin’s collected works had been read in these parts. Perhaps not, but I am reasonably sure that he didn’t arrive by bicycle.