Category: Riding Upside DownUnder and Outbackwards

Bicycling South to North across Australia

The Ugly, the Bad and the Good

An Epilogue

(Apologies to Sergio Leone)

Some afterthoughts on my journey across the Continent of Australia:

Any journey leaves a mix of impressions. There are ups and downs, good times and times not so great. It is the overall experience that counts and how you view the experience is largely a part of if you are a glass half empty or half full mentality. I tend to be the latter. Things are what we make them much of the time and how good a time you have on a journey can often be restricted by a poor attitude. So chin up buckaroo and make the best of it. That said, here are my highs and lows.

The Ugly:

Rolling dust buckets with added stink

Without a doubt, road trains. These 50 metre long behemoths are rolling dust buckets and walls of wind. On narrow, gravel and one lane roads they require you to exit the roadway as far as you can and shield your face from the blast of dust, dirt and pebbles that follow them. The people who drive them are to be admired. It has to be a tough and nasty job especially when your road train is full of sheep or cattle. Two, three and four trailers long they snake along at 80 km/h or faster. Keeping one on the road in a cross wind has to be a herculean task. Hats off to the drivers but I dreaded seeing one heading my way.

The Bad:

Wearing my fly face

Flies. Thousands of flies. Millions of flies. Flies wholesale. Flies retail. Flies in your eyes, your ears, your breakfast, your sandwich and your drink. Even in the wind they hitch rides on your back and greet you when you stop. They live on your sweat and cattle dung. The are as much a part of the Outback as the air you breath and frequently share that with you as well. I could have done without them.

The floods that blocked our way and the rough roads they left behind.

The Good:

Local children in Dajarra enjoying a treat.

The people. The wonderful, kind, helpful, colourful people of the Outback. The station keepers. The pub owners and workers. The few and far between townspeople who love to share their tales and make your way an easier one. The Aboriginal Australians who care for the land and know the lessons of how to survive where other perish. All of these people made my journey one to cherish.

A great bunch of folks to ride with

The fellowship. The fellow riders, the staff that moved our belongings, gear and kept us fed. More than fellow passenger on a journey, more than people doing a job, we formed a family of sorts on this trip. We looked after each other, helped each other, fixed things, offered encouragement and even medical aid when needed. A great bunch of people and a greater journey because of the fellowship we shared.

Deon’s Lookout

The land. The Outback fills a place in the Australian psyche similar to the north to Canadians or the pioneer west to Americans. It represents the hard as an iron skillet, root hog or die mentality that formed the backbone of this nation and its people. It is part of their identity and always close to their heart. It can look bleak and forbidding. It can break or kill a body but it has a charm and a beauty if you look closely and I looked. The beauty was there even when the scenery seemed the same, mile after mile. All I needed to do was look up and appreciate the great, wide and brown landscape that touched the sky.

If you go, go with the right state of mind. Go with the right people. And go let yourself have an epic journey.

The Journey Home

Table lands landscape

June 4 – 7, 2019

After a day to rest, sort out our belongings and reload the bus and trailer we were ready to start the trek to Cairns where we would go our separate way. Only one thing was stopping us. We had to swap the defective transportation bus with its broken air conditioner, faulty rear door and other problems with the bus used to transport our food and cooking gear. The swapping and cleaning was accomplished with few worries but when it came time to attach the trailer with the bikes and other gear we discovered that the trailer’s electrical plug did not match the outlet on the bus. There were some adapters in the bus but none that matched. No connection between bus and trailer meant no trailer lights and turn signals and most likely a traffic ticket, fines and other misfortunes if we tried to travel without it. I had a look at the collection of materials available and convinced Andy, our helpful and resourceful driver, to let me hack up one to get enough parts to rewire the connection. A bit of this and that plus a bit of knowledge about what wires went where and “let there be lights!”

Our first day on the road brought us to Undara Volcanic National Park and the Undara Experience where we camped for the night. Beautiful campground and facilities with some nice hiking trails that many of us took advantage of. Dinner was a bit pricey but the food quality was good. Andy invited me to watch the big sporting event of the season with him that evening on the big screen television in the camp’s outdoor dining area. The event is called State of Origin and it is a best of three games contest between Australian Rugby rivals New South Wales and Queensland. The players on either team have to have originated their rugby careers and play for one or the other rival states. It is a big deal. Not quite Superbowl but more like the Grey Cup. Andy explained the rules to me and provided a running commentary. It is an easy game to follow with just about non stop action through the two 40 minute halves. Its a good game. Andy’s favourite, New South Wales started strong and dominated only to be overtaken in the second half. Final score: Queensland 18, new South Wales 14. Better luck next time Andy.

A cold and overpriced breakfast experience

The lave tubes tour was on our agenda before leaving the next day and worth spending the time to see. Unfortunately, this delayed our departure until after 12 noon and either required us to skip breakfast and wait until around 2:00 pm before getting to a to eat lunch or spending $26.00 on the only breakfast option offered by the Undara Experience. This was an all you can eat outdoor buffet served in an open circle with stumps to set your plate on and logs to sit on. The morning was chilly with gale force gusts of wind so there was some hope that the folks at the Undara Experience would have a warmer option available. Not so. For Just $26.00 you were served eggs, dried out sausage, under cooked bacon, toast you had to make yourself over an open fire, hard butter and a bit of fruit and cereal. By the time you assembled your plate and put together your meal and found a stump, everything was cold. My advice, if you go, bring your own breakfast of just starve until lunch.

The lave tubes are definitely worth the $60 tour fee. These ancient relics of the area’s volcanic past are spectacular and interesting. They form a micro climate in the savanna and host some flora and fauna not found elsewhere in the area. An interesting example is the Strangler Fig. This is a vine that is deposited in a tree top through its seeds in bird droppings. The vines attach themselves to the branches of the tree and live there without rooting to the ground. Slowly the vines grow downward until they touch the ground where they then root and thicken drawing nourishment away from the host tree. Eventually they strangle their host and form a self supporting structure surrounding the now dead tree on the interior forming what is know as a Curtain Tree.

The tubes themselves have an interesting history on their journey to becoming a tourist attraction. Once part of a Rosella Plains cattle station owned by the Collins family they were opened by fourth generation family member, Gerry Collins as a tourism attraction in 1987. In 2009 the government of Australia negotiated with the Collins family to create the Undara Volcanic National Park and allowed Gerry to operate The Undara Experience offering food, accommodations and tours of the lave tubes he once owned. The tubes are reputed to be the largest known to exist and extend for many kilometres. Only a small portion are visited on the tour but that portion is quite impressive. During the hot summer months a section of the tubes must be closed to visitors due to high carbon dioxide levels due to the decomposing bat dung and little air exchange within the tubes. However this environment is home to some specially adapted animal and plant species.

From Undara our journey quickly continued on across the table lands into the rain forest on the outskirts of Cairns. Reaching Cairns we said our goodbyes in spurts as one by one we dropped off riders at various locations as they made their connections for the last leg of their journey. Since I have the furthest to travel and the longest layover, I was among the last to say goodbye. It was an amazing journey and with great travelling companions. The grease that makes an epic bicycle tour run smoothly is the willingness of the riders to work together, play together and help each other along the way. Twice now I have been fortunate to travel with some great people. It was a pleasure to know and ride with such fine folks. Fond memories!

Apres Ride

June 4, 2019

The sunset at Karumba Point

With the continental ride behind us it is time to sort through our belongings, pack up our bikes and have a little R & R in Karumba. Karumba is primarily a fishing town as well as an export port for cattle. There is a factory of some sort that processes minerals of some sort. Their sign gives no clue as to what they do but I am guessing they make concrete. It is also home to the Barramumdi Research Centre and hatchery. barramundi is a very tasty fish local to the waters of northern Australia and kissing cousin to the Nile Perch. They grow quite large and at a rate of about 1 millimetre a day when young. The species is male until reaching somewhere between 75 and 90 centimetres in length at which point they become female. Equal rights for barramundi!

Karumba fishing boat

Karumba is victim to about 20 plus cyclones over the past century as well as monsoon rains at times. Still, they can experience severe droughts and fresh water is often rationed. You can see salt marshes and salt encrusted lands nearly everywhere, a sign of the surging ocean. Tourism is becoming a major part of the economy with more and more investment by the Shire of Carpentaria.

A barramundi feast!

The highlight of my time here was a delicious barramundi dinner at a bay side restaurant with an equally delicious sunset. The entire group of riders and staff attended for what will be our last meal where we are all gathered. Ralph and Frank will make their way back to their home base while Andy and Niels take us the rest of the way to Cairns where we will all head off in different directions to our homes.

Aye Karumba!

June 3, 2019

Our celebration photo!
Krys and I get aquainted.

After many kilometres, rough gravel roads and winds both favourable and malicious we mounted our bikes for the final leg of our cross continent journey. What remained was a mere 70 kilometres of surfaced road and a mix of side and tail winds. We took advantage of a leisurely morning in Normantown to visit their railway station and to see the replica of Krys, the largest crocodile ever captured. This 8.3 metre (28′-4”) monster was shot by Krystina Pawlowski in 1957 on the Norman River near the town. It was estimated to weigh over two tons. Now you know why folks don’t go skinny dipping in the Norman River or any other river around these parts.

Our ride to Karumba on the coast was a pleasant one. We are crossing savanna lands but grasses seem to be in short supply. We passed a massive collection point for cattle at about the halfway point and over grazing may account for the lack of savanna like grasslands. It might also be the two cyclones that hit this area earlier this year. The winds were mostly good and the the road mostly flat. We made record time and had plenty of time to catch a beer or two at the Animal Bar that is part of the Karumba Hotel. From there it was a short ride to Karumba Point where the river flows into a bay just off of the Pacific Ocean and part of the northern coast of Australia. There were cheers, traditional tire dips and bike raises to celebrate.

A total of 13 riders made the trip assisted by 6 staff from Bike and Wheels. The hard work of the staff kept us supplied with the food, water and gear transport that allowed us to cross the dry and sparsely populated Outback. Ralph, Angie, Andy, Kylie, Frank and Niels did a great job seeing that we had places to camp, food to eat and plenty of water. Our thanks to them for a job well done and cheers to all the riders for having the grit to challenge the Outback and win!

Niels,Kylie, Andy, Angie, Frank and Ralph. The Outbike support staff.

Tropical Riding

June 1 – 2, 2019

When we crossed the Tropic of Capricorn a few hundred of kilometres I anxiously awaited the change to more tropical scenery. I understood that we were coming into Australia’s winter but Australia is not know for Nordic conditions. Sure, they have snow and even ski resorts in their southern most regions but we were well north of that. Additionally, they had recently experienced two cyclones that drenched much of northeastern Australia to the point where roads had been closed for long periods due to flooding. What I experienced was something completely different.

What you expect and what you get can be different.

Aside from the landscape being much greener and with far more vegetation, the look was not exactly what I pictured as tropical. The landscape was still mostly flat, the trees relatively stumpy and most of the rivers and creeks just rocky, dry beds with maybe a small pool of stagnant, green water. Not exactly Gilligan’s Island.

One thing that did appear tropical was the proliferation of large and numerous termite mounds. While we had been seeing these for many kilometres before crossing the tropical line, up here they appear far more numerous and far larger. I would expect that anything made of wood might want to keep moving along at a fast pace.

We are heading to Normantown the last stop before our last day push to the coast at Karumba. We are camping one more night along side the highway before having the luxury of a caravan park in Normantown complete with hot spa and large swimming pool. As we get closer to the ocean things are looking a bit more tropical. Rivers actually have water and that water has crocodiles; big saltwater crocodiles. No skinny dipping for me as I want to make the final ride to the ocean tomorrow.

Looking more tropical

Fair Winds and Flying Times

We get get together before the ride

May 30-31, 2019

Our day started with a late morning and a gropu photo in from of Cloncurry’s Post Office Hotel, across the street form the…wait for it…Post Office. We are heading north with strong winds at our back. It is time for the bikes to fly. The peddles crank away with little effort and the kilometres fly by with these conditions. The road today is less travelled and there is time to enjoy the scenery. In na previous post I mentioned the termites who’s mounds sometimes take over the landscape. Along this road I noticed that they have become somewhat devious taking to adopt a human disguise. I wonder what they are up to.

The Quimby Hotel check in at your own risk

Our lunch stop was at the Quimby Hotel a one time oasis for thirsty and weary travellers. Today it is just another ghost along the highway. It must have been a swinging place at one time with rodeos, dancing, drinking and rooms to rent. All quiet now as rust and rot are the primary guests.

Come for the night and stay until you rust.

We are camping roadside this evening at a somewhat public facility halfway between Cloncurry and the Burke and Wills Roadhouse 186 kilometres from our start. It seems to be a very popular place for the camp for free crowd. At least six vehicles with caravans (trailers) have pulled in and another three or four having taken a look at our 19 tents and decided to move on. One resident who did not mind our being here was a large and colourful spider that Niels found nesting in a nearby tree. As the Crocodile Hunter used to exclaim, “What a beauty!”

Gold Globe spider

More tail wind on May 31st all the way to the Burke and Wills Roadhouse. The Burke and Wills Roadhouse is one of those places that owes it existence to being right in the middle of someplace and someplace else and just far enough from both to be a good place to stop. Aside from the roadhouse and camping area you alternatives are strictly limited.

The Road to Cloncurry

May 29, 2019

Monument to the Aboriginal peoples who once owned this land

The road from Mount Isa to Cloncurry, 120 kilometres east is a busy road. Not with rush hour traffic but with industrial strength traffic. You want to see road trains? Here be road trains. You want to see drilling rigs, construction vehicles, delivery vehicles, vehicles to service all of the above? You can find them here. Toss in a few happy vacationers and their caravans and you may get the picture. The scenery along the way is breathtaking, when you can dare to tear your eye away from the mirror to watch it. After many days of riding the seldom travelled Outback roads, Route A2 to Cloncurry takes some adjustment in your riding habits.

The road passes through the ancestral tribal lands of the Kalkadoon and Mitakoodi peoples. They were dispossessed of these lands by the European settlers who came with the opening of this continent. There is a monument to these people who’s descendants are still part of the Australian culture even though they are a people without a homeland today. It reminds me our some similar circumstances back in Ontario and the impossible task of righting these wrong doings that still live fresh in so many memories. There are no easy answers and no way to turn back the pages of history without creating another wrong in the process. This monument is a reminder of work that still needs to be done. Here is a poem that is part of the monument:

Earth and the sun and sky
Knowing not wherefore nor why
They each saw me roam
Happy to live and to die
The bushland my home

Just what are they feeding these cows?

There were a couple of interesting road signs along the way today. The first involves a cow and a car. It sends a couple of different messages. Should we fear attacks on our vehicles by the cows? Does it warn of some strange milk transport vehicles that may be on the road? Maybe it warns to be on the lookout for hybrid vehicles? Whatever it is saying, I plan to give any cows or cow like objects that I see plenty of room.

I did not get the message.

The other sign was a billboard that advises us to, “Be Deadly, Live Healthy.” I’m not sure just how this works. Sure, I can live healthy but why should someone else have to die because of it? Maybe it is some Australian thing that Canadians or at least I just don’t understand.

The Mount Isa Story

Mount Isa skyline

May 28, 2019

At first look Mount Isa is a beer and steak kind of town. Hard, industrial and everything has to have a function. A place to work, sleep, eat and little more. However, there is a deeper Mount Isa. One that has a symphony orchestra, art exhibitions and museums. It is a town trying to be more than its mine and metal past while still embracing those industries. It is called The Big Smoke with affection by most Australians.

From whatever direction you approach this city its industrial base is first and foremost what you will encounter. Mines, smelters and the industries to service them definitely predominate. From the ground comes lead, zinc, silver and copper. Some is shipped away as ore and some processed into metals on site. The history of this industry is typical of mining in general with a chance discovery, early optimism, hard work and sweat leading to near failure before success was achieved. Today the mines are among the best producing in Australia.

One of my visits was to the Underground Hospital Museum. During World War Two, Japan effectively cut Australia off from the rest of the world during the period when their navy dominated the Pacific Ocean. When they bombed the port city of Darwin, the inland city of Mount Isa feared attack as well due to their mining and metals industries. The hospital which was a collection of tents and small above ground structures on a hill top was especially vulnerable. Using help from the miners they carved out a series of tunnels below their hilltop that made the hospital invisible and bomb proof. While mount Isa was never hit by the Japanese, the underground hospital provided insurance of continuous medical treatment throughout the war. Today it has been restored to its war time prime to tell the tale of those fearful days.

Mount Isa is suffering from a population drop of about 30% over the past 20 years due to many workers choosing to live elsewhere and fly in for their work shifts. The mines and smelter companies promote this as a way of attracting the skills they need to operate in this near nowhere city. However, the city is fighting back by doing everything in its power to make this once beer and steak town into a place to live, raise families and retire. With the Outback on their doorstep they have plenty to offer and so long as the ore holds out, Mount Isa will fight on.

The Road to Mount Isa

May 27, 2019

Welcome to Mount Isa

Today we hit the last leg of our segment from Boulia to Mount Isa where we will stop for a rest day. The wind kicked up overnight and was strong enough to cause the sides of my tent to slap against my head. Nice wake up call. Packing everything down in the strong wind was a challenge but we managed by helping each other and preventing tents and tarps from turning into runaway kites. At least it was a tail wind for the first 35 kilometres or so. Later it was more in our face before finally becoming our friend again as the road turned to a more northerly direction into Mount Isa.

Entering the Shire of Mount Isa

While the Shire of Mount Isa is a lot less than what I think of as mountainous, it is quite hilly and a change from the flat, dry Outback we have been crossing. Boulder abound as do large termite mounds. These termite mounds dominate the landscape in some areas with their cone like structures forming large colonies of these wood eating insects.

From the beginning I had a mental picture of Mount Isa as being somewhat resort like with plenty of trees and shady streams running down steep hillsides. What I found was an industrial centre of mines, smelters and heavy industry. It is a busy place and definitely the largest town we have been through since leaving the southern coast at Port Augusta. The town is suffering a downturn despite the thriving mines and smelters. Many of these companies now fly their workers in from other areas c=reating a Monday through Friday transient economy. The number of permanent residents has seen a steady decline over the past decade and now stands at about 20,000 people.

Mount Isa industry

Tomorrow I plan to visit the town, post a blog entry then sit back, relax and generally get ready for the final week long leg of our cross the continent journey. Starting May 29th we make our week long final push to the northern coast and Karunba.

The Land of Easy Riding

May 25 & 26, 2019

Sunset Panorama

The last two days have been some of the most pleasant of rides for the group. The scenery has changed from flat desert to a landscape with more trees, more greenery and undulating hills. The winds have been softer and even favourable at times. Even the flies have backed off a bit but NEVER entirely. It has been a pleasure to be riding with every rider able to finish the days ride without feeling drained of all strength.

Promoting the Min Min lights

On the way out of Boulia I stopped to take a picture of the town’s primary attraction, an information centre dedicated to the mysterious Min Min Lights. These unexplained lights can be seen doing strange things in the distance a short ways out of town. My guess is that they are like the Marfa Lights in Texas or the Deacon Lights near home in Ontario. Most likely car lights or farm equipment lights that folks convince themselves as being some unexplained phenomenon. Imagination and suggestion are the primary ingredients. Either that or swamp gas.

Our roadside Outback camp

We left Boulia making an early start heading for a roadside bush camp site about 100 kilometres distant. This would be primitive camping with sanitary facilities being a hole dug into the cement hard earth. What the location lacked in amenities it made up for with a spectacular sunset view. Breakfast was the usual fight with the flies to see if I could eat my porridge before they got into my mouth.

Sunday the 26th of May was another early start with everything apparently in our favour. Winds we expected to be at our back, the road reasonably smooth and our distance a reasonable 100 kilometres. Along the way we would be treated to a rare mid-ride town. In the Outback the distances between settlements can be a lot further than a day’s ride so having the prospect of a place to buy a cold drink along the way was a real treat for us. Dajarra did not disappoint. Even through it was a Sunday the local motel and roadhouse was open with an ice cold sarsaparilla to cool my throat. Dajarra is a largely Aborigional community that was once a major centre for the cattle industry. Cattle still play abig role today as they do across the Outback with jobs tending, hauling, rounding up and generally getting them to the table of hungry Australians. We met some local children enjoying a Sunday treat from the roadhouse. They were interested in our bicycles and where we were going.

Lunch by the billabong

Our lunch stop was at a location that I think I can sum up by paraphrasing Paul Simon’s words from the song, Dangling Conversations: A real life watercolour on an idyllic afternoon. A cool, green clear water pond restfully shaded. Major Mitchell parrots swooped and soared over the water while we rested our legs and ate our sandwiches. It was the best lunch stop so far on the trip.

With the landscape more varied now the kilometres seemed to drift by as we peddled our way over the last 40 kilometres to another rustic, roadside camping site. Break out the shovels and the TP for tonight; tomorrow we camp at Mount Isa.