Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Bike vs bike

My first night in Mildura I stayed at the Calder Highway caravan park which was unsurprisingly quite a noisy park. I then moved to the River Road caravan park on Ranfurly road, the road to Merbein out past Ranfurly Bend of the Murray and Ranfurly Lake. This caravan park is just across the road from the Murray River and there is a nice little walk along it towards the lookout at Merbein, past the pump station. It could be possible to get away with some free-camping in areas away from the tracks, boat ramps and moorings. I can  recommend going for an early morning tramp along this part of the Murray, looking out for Wedge-tailed Eagles. After a few days I moved to Buronga caravan park just across the bridge into NSW because it was half the price and closer to town.

As well as the run of cycling-unfriendly weather in the form of 40km/h winds and camping-unfriendly dumps of rain, my other reasons for the extended stay in Mildura were three things: ordering a 40c Schwalbe tyre to help cope with the muddy conditions, seeing a doctor about my swollen left ankle, and voting in the Federal election. 

The tyre took a week to arrive from Melbourne, not because it wasn't in stock or that the courier wasn't able to deliver it overnight, but because the bicycle store in Mildura I stupidly ordered it through were rather incompetent. Turns out the guy in the store could have picked up the phone at any stage to sort out the  problem, but he didn't bother to. This was despite me saying I was waiting on the tyre, and specifically asking him to ring up about it twice. Useless! 

The issue out here is the lack of competition - you simply have no alternative but to deal with these idiots who clearly find customer service a foreign concept. Except people  these days do have an alternative - ordering online through the web-based bike shops. And the bricks-and-mortor shops will sit around scratching their thick heads why they have no clients.

The other bike shop in town was worse. As well as having a blind dog walking around the shop who tried to bite customers, they don't cater for 700c bike riders. When asking for 700c presta tubes I was told they don't stock presta tubes, but whenever someone comes in for one they drill out the rims to fit Schreder. They said they drill out rims "every second day". Idiots! They offered to drill out my rim holes and I impolitely refused the offer. Would I trust you buffoons with a power drill when you can't even sort out inventory? 

One day while staying in Mildura I visited the Australian Inland Botanical Gardens which is over the George Chaffey Bridge into NSW, and about 6 km along a rough bike track (watch the grumpy magpie). This was on the morning of the Federal election - I first headed into town to vote. On the way into town to vote some bloke yelled out to me, 'Hey you're riding a bicycle - you'd be voting Green. Better than those other wombats!' All I'm asking is for this to be a campaign slogan next time around. Better than those other wombats was indeed how it seemed many voted. 

After posting my absentee vote - yes I vote Greens - for the Melbourne electorate (I am a 'no fixed address' voter so I get to vote in my last enrollment electorate), I headed to the Sunraysia Farmers Market, held at the Inland Botanical Gardens every fortnight. I ride past the parking officers and park my bike at the first of the market stalls like a VIP. Immediately I am accosted by someone. "You took your time getting here!" some man I don't recognise from anywhere yells ar me at point blank range. "Umm, did I? Sorry, I guess I better ride faster next time," I counter, taken aback. 

Once the yelling man waddles away I figure he must be from the caravan park and has seen me leave, assuming I have come straight here, when I've actually gone over the bridge into town to vote and visit the bakery, and eat baked goods, then back over the bridge and out to the market. I almost wanted to find this guy and tell him his assumptions were incorrect out of some kind of weird want for restoration of cyclist pride. Instead I reach around and try to remove the postit I must be wearing today that says "Please yell shit at me".

That night I watched the ABC election coverage. Congratulations to the new member for my seat, Adam Bandt! Maybe it was just an off day, but as well as clearly taking an inappropriate amount of time to get to, I found this market pretty disappointing. I show up with a large pannier to fill with fresh vegetables, but instead find only three fruit and vegetable stalls selling only leeks and oranges, and the remainder of stalls carrying jams, chutneys, muffins, chocolate and dog treats. All I rode away with was some mulberry jam, a muffin and a bag of turkish delight. Who took the farmer out of the farmers market?

On the way back I side-tracked down a dirt road signed Botanical Gardens Riverine Site which gets you to the bank of the Murray. I would be possible to free-camp here probably. I saw some snagged fishing line, a ring pull off a can and a couple of hairy caterpillars and had MacGyver moment - I un-snagged the line and made a reel of a stick, tied a ring pull on one end of line, hooked on a caterpillar and cast it. I was just being silly, having some fun. After 1 minute of crouching down watching some eagles do their own fishing I got a strong tug on the line and almost dropped the makeshift reel out of shock. The fish, whatever it was,  unsurprisingly got away. But seriously, how that set up managed to get a bite I don't know!

One day while staying in Mildura I went for a walk to Kings Billabong along the River. A few days later I rode around the wetlands there and free camped on the edge of the billabong that night. The next two nights I free-camped at Mansells Bend of the Murray, east of Colignan and the southern end of the river track in  Hattah-Kulkyne. On this latter night it poured and I woke up with my tent in a quagmire of sticky mud. I've had to go to plan B of the Murray River part of this trip as Murray mud is impossible to travel over. I have a 40c tyre and a 42c tyre on and it's still impossible to use the river tracks which are dry weather only and the sticky mud gives your tyres a 5 cm coating, instantly clogging up the gap between tyre and fender. I've had to use the highways a lot more than I had intended. It seems me trying to ride a bicycle along the Murray has been the catalyst for the wettest winter in 10 years. This means the Murray is actually flowing in the right direction!

Next up was Robinvale. I managed to get 4 flats on the way, and on this muddy wet windy day I managed to keep my cool somehow. A few blokes in utes pulled up to ask if I was ok, and because I was 40 kilometres between towns I put on my blokiest voice to say 'no worries mate its just a flat' each time, which I laughed out loud to myself about after they drove off. Not sure how convincing I am. The caravan park I stayed in at Robinvale was full of male fruit pickers who descended on me like vultures inviting me into their caravans or lift in their car or to have a beer and watch Steven Segal movies with them all of which made me feel rather uncomfortable, being the only female in the caravan park. I hid in the ladies for a while. After free camping
alone with no-one in sight for three nights I wasn't up for the unwanted attention, and wished I was still free-camping, despite the rain and mud! While in Robinvale I went down to the river edge below
the Robinvale-Euston bridge, looked at the huge Southern Cross windmill there - I believe it is tge largest of it's kind, and walked along the river track for a while.

The next night I stayed at the caravan park at Boundary Bend (just across the road from the Murray) for $9. This was nice and quiet - I was the only camper, and no fruit-pickers! - and the grass was excellent.

Nyah, pronounced ni-yah, was next. $10 for an unpowered site and again I had a nice quiet spot on my own. Because I was starving I stupidly bought a burger from the only restaurant there and woke up at 3am with food poisoning. I rolled out of my tent and lay on the frosty grass for 10 minutes groaning before I could even stand up, so that would have been pretty funny to watch if anyone else was camping to see it. 

Thankfully I only had 30k to ride the next day into Swan Hill. On the way I saw the first locust of the trip, which was on the white line on the road. I rode over it. Crunch. Something strange happened about halfway. Two bikies rode past and then did a u-turn. I come around a bend and up ahead parked facing me (facing the wrong way for flow of traffic even) blocking the shoulder were four bikie dudes. I immediately stop where I am and pretend to drink some water. Eventually a fire truck drives past and notices the stand off, has a gawk. The bikies then ride off. Weird.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Were there any swag-women?

Horsham is a medium sized town which sports an Aldi and two bike shops (Wimmera Wheels being the better one for touring cyclists). The caravan park here is nice and affordable and is nestled in close to the Wimmera River.
Leaving Horsham after three nights with a camp kitchen and television set all to myself, I headed north-west on the Western Highway which continued to have, for the most part, bicycle-friendly shoulders, which is very good because the road is quite busy. 

After about an hour on the road I was overtaken by a Taiwanese cycling tourist. The shoulder isn't wide enough for two laden travellers, and the road too busy for safe conversation so our meeting was brief. I kept up with him for an hour but then decided stopping for something to eat was a good plan. I caught up with him again in Dimboola where we chatted for a while at the café. He continued on to Nhill, but I stayed at Dimboola to use the library, internet, walk around town and down the Wimmera River. The Taiwanese traveller is going onto Adelaide and then flying up to Cairns to ride down to Sydney, where he started out.
Dimboola is a small town with one hotel - the other is not fit for purpose due to a fire. The caravan park is next to the Wimmera River.

From Dimboola, I headed North-east on the Borung Highway - a very straight stretch of road to Warracknabeal.

Warracknabeal is a nice town that sits on the part of Yarriambiack Creek that actually has water and lots of it. This is because it is dammed water and not much further north the creek bed is dry. The Yarriambiack creek system, and I've heard the Wimmera River is the same, is a gated water system with most gates closed to flow. 

Headwinds plagued me as I followed the Henty Highway north, and beside the now dry parts of Yarriambiack Creek, and willing for a break from my windy nemesis, my first stop was lunch at Brim.
Brim, meaning "well of water" in Indigenous language, is about halfway between Warracknabeal and Beulah. It is a very small town where everything closes for the football game. 'Everything' being the pub and the general store. There is a lakeside caravan park here that charges $5 a night for a powered site. The lake, like most in this part of Victoria, is a weir, part of Yarriambiack
Creek, and is bone dry due to extended drought conditions and the closed gates downstream. So much for well of water.

I made it to Beulah by lunch time, a place that calls itself "North of the netting" that was supposed to keep rabbits south of it and dingos north. Beulah has a free powered caravan park next to the footy field and netball courts, and dried up Yarriambiack Creek. I stayed here on a Saturday night and showed up in the middle of the main game of football where the whole town and competing town were there to cheer on their players. All the shops were closed while the game was on so I had to wait for a feed. Everyone had cleared out by 9pm and due to an
overnight thunderstorm I ended up sleeping in a netball shed. However, I was lazy, slept in, and got busted by some netball mums preparing for a day of games at 8 am. Oops.
Hopetoun was the next dot on the map. Lake Lascelles has managed to get a water allowance and has been full for only six months. You can stay in cabins here, camp with power for $10 a night, or camp without for free. The first night I stayed here I stayed in a converted silo for $20. Due to bad weather for cycling, I stayed here a few more days and nights, free camping.

One day I was cooking some lunch when I could hear a lamb bleeting. A little tiny lamb was knocking on the door on a big white caravan. That's not your mum. It was a windy day and freezing by the lake. After a while the tiny thing went to sleep by the petrol genset the
crazy owner had running 24 hours a day despite a powered site only costing $10. I tried to find the rest of the flock but couldn't. Eventually the van owner flagged down a ute and I can only assume the driver had chops for tea.

Leaving Hopetoun finally, I stupidly managed to pick a day where most of the traffic coming the other way was trucks carrying oversize signs and agricultural machinery of various awkward shaped and sizes - taking up one lane and a half - from the Speed Field Day exhibition. Well, at least they were going the opposite direction.
Lascelles was next. This is just a speck on the map and all that is here is a pub which is also a convenience store. There is a patch of grass with a ammenities block sign posted as a caravan park, so I stayed here overnight to break up the ride to Ouyen.
Seventy kilometres of headwinds and not much water later I made it to Ouyen at 5pm, exhausted and starving. The only thing open besides the pub was a greasy spoon where I bought a fish burger and it was bloody good. I stayed here two nights.
Ouyen caravan park is next to Blackburn Park with netball courts, afl field, playground and also trotting track. There is a sign in this park showing the years of demise and amalgamation of various football clubs in the region, symbolic of the towns themselves dying. What was
about seven clubs gradually merged into the one club, Ouyen United. 

Just before I got to Ouyen there is what I am guessing a saltpan in the area known as Bronzewing. The vegetation abruptly changes from Mallee scrub to low-lying plants you normally see along the coast - pigface and samphire, but also rushes, and just as abruptly ends, merging back to scrub. 

Along the Sunraysia and Calder Highways it is mostly lined on at least one side by somewhat authentic Mallee scrub - caught between the wheat-carrying railway line and these highways it is one of the last remaining habitats for the Mallee fowl, and not surprisingly this species is endangered.

Next I rode on to Hattah and the Hattah-Kilkyne National Park which is six kikometres off the Calder on sealed, albeit narrow road that cuts into the mallee scrub. I was heading for the Hattah 
Lake campsite. 
Mallee scrub is very different from the rural areas and wimmera bush I had previously travelled through. In places it is quite open, with lots of bare soil - sometimes quite red soil - between the spiky Porcipine grass, ground covers, squat acacia and short mallee trees.
The endangered Mallee fowl, when it has the misfortune of being hit by one of the never-ending stream of oblivious motor vehicles - the trucks, vans, small trucks with oversized caravans or small mansions on wheels - the precious birds get decapitated instantly as the only mercy spared for  them. 

I have found the Mallee has a diversity of interesting flora when you travel at human powered speed. I am guessing in a car at 110 km/h it just looks like a blur of dull greens. The rings of porcupine grass - it dies out in the middle as it grows in breadth - creating a circle of green spines. The different levels created by ground covers, then acacia shrubs, then the short mallee eucalypt. And while the wattles aren't in flower, splashes of gems - the mallee orchid clambering over the shrubs and trees and even itself - with its pale yellow delicate flowers - to which the sedentary occupants of the speeding cars are oblivious and I can delight in alone. 

Another seventy-five kilometres of this back to the main road and along the Calder I make it to Mildura, and finally my first glimpse of the Murray River, which I fall in love with immediately. There is something about rivers! I leave the bike and walk a few kilometres along it, amazed at all the edible plants that I can identify growing on its banks. Old man saltbush, pigface, nettle, sow thistle, bullrush, wild brassica, plantain, wood sorrel and mallow just the ones I know about. There are some crazy succulents that might be carpobrotus also - tiny little things, bright green, that  look like land-based corals.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

First month on the road

I'm planning to write up a summary of 'learnings' or a summary or whatever you might call it from the tour on a monthly basis, and this is the very first one!

I'm breaking it up into sections: water, food, shelter, power, bike maintenance, and amusement but other sections might creep in and out.


No issues with running out of, or finding water so far. I carry two litres at a time but usually only touch one of the 1 litre bottles while riding during the day. It is only winter. I tend to use a three or four litres for cooking and washing up during a day.


Breakfast tends to be rolled oats cooked into a porriage with sugar sprinkled on top and milk and sultanas when I can.

Snacks tend to be mixed nuts, sultanas, fruit, out of date packets of fig rolls from cheap shops, and junk like chocolate and biscuits.

Meals tend to polenta or bread with boiled sweet potato or pumpkin for lunch, and for dinner simple carb + protein meals such as lentil dhal with rice or free greens (weeds) cooked with rice with herb seasonings, cheese sauce packet mixed with cooked pasta with nettles, or similar with cous cous. But sometimes I buy a few different vegetables and boil it all with rice just in case I'm lacking in something.

I tend to carry small packets of rice or cous cous and whatever the smallest pasta I can find is (e.g. macaroni or small shells), sometimes also polenta when I can find it, also stock cubes, mixed seasoning packets, and garlic salt.

The most common free food I have found this month is (in order of most common first):
  • Oxalis - this is everywhere at the moment! It looks a bit like 'tall clover' and has yellow bell flowers. You can eat this raw in sandwiches and salads but I tend it sprinkle the leaves / flowers over any cooked food as a garnish when it needs something to make it a bit more interesting - it has a tangy bitterness which can disguise a bland dish.
  • Mallow - this is also everywhere, albeit often chewed and holey or with insects attached. You can however find plenty of leaves that haven't been attached to or attacked by insects, especially new growth. This can be eaten raw but I tend to wash it, bunch it up and slice it into strips and add it as a green to whatever I'm cooking.
  • Wild Brassicas - various species but all have the distinctive yellow flowers and seed pods. Cook leaves like spinach.
  • Wild or Prickly Lettuce - this is just like cos lettuce but the leaves stand tall more individually rather than into a tight cup, are more bitter and can have prickles. If you manage to find young plants/leaves you can use in salads, sandwiches, burritos; otherwise chop it up and throw it into boiling water with the rice or pasta.
  • Dandelion - raw or cooked, the leaves are a good green for your dishes.
  • Sowthistle - frying up the unopened buds with a little garlic or garlic salt is very very nice. Otherwise, the leaves are good blanched and cut up like a spinach for addition to your pasta, rice, polenta or cous cous.
  • Chickweed - this is good for salads, sandwiches or as a garnish raw on whatever meal.
  • Cleavers - I have yet to try but I have seen them around a bit. They are weird sticky leaves but apparently quite nutritious.
  • Nettle - the stinging leaves of this plant mean you have to pick it with gloves on but its taste and nutrition means it is worth it. However, most of the time I have only found this in peoples yards and behind fences so it is hard to get to without trespassing. I have managed so far to find small amounts of it on the footpath side of fences so are yet to be convicted of any weeding crimes. Nettle tea is also very good for you. I tend to put the leaves in a pot of boiling water to blanch it (this gets rid of the sting) and then remove it, cook rice or pasta in the 'tea' and then mix it back in with the cooked carb with half a packet of cheese sauce mix.
  • Pigface - this can be found in more swampy or wet areas around creeks if you're not near the coast. I was suprised to see this is the Wimmera and Mallee area! You can eat this raw but I prefer to boil the fleshy leaves like a green and eat it with a salty cous cous.
I found that I go through a lot of fuel when it is windy, despite trying my best to form wind breaks out of whatever I have around - bricks, branches, wood.

Shelter and coping with the elements

In Bendigo I found that my tend does not tend to handle 10mm dumps of rain on it without the fly over the top, nor flooding from below when a creek decides to spring up in the middle of a camp ground. Since I have always put the fly over the top when any amount of rain is possible. I use my towel to mop out tent if it does get some rain in through the seams. In Horsham I managed to find a camping store that sold spray on waterproofer so I have put a coat of that on my shoes and my tent.

In terms of the cold, I have always managed to keep warm in the night. I have a -5 rated down 'mummy' shaped sleeping bag (meaning it tapers at the feet) and a thermal liner. I also use a waterproof sack over the bag (due to condensation inside the tent making my down bag damp) which also helps trap my heat. Some nights I wear two pairs of socks, a neck gaiter and a beanie.

In Bendigo I bought four plastic sand pegs which are also easier to get into hard ground, a dome tent pole (9mm) which came in 4 sections. I cut each section down to half length so it now fits in the rolled up tent. I connect three sections together to form a pole, and make up two of these to use with the fly and sand pegs on less windy days as it means the tent is easier to get in and out of.

Lighting and Power

I'm using a solar powered led light which I can run for several hours a night with the little sunlight its getting during the day to charge.

I also have a 1 watt battery torch I use on the bike or as a torch when walking around. I've only use the 7 watt torch a couple of times for spotlighting animals in trees or when I'm somewhere that is really dark and muddy where a bit more light comes in handy.

I'm charging my phone from PV mostly and the PDA I can charge when I'm using the internet at libraries, cafes and occassionally from my backup li-on battery. The PDA is mostly used for looking at e-books on plants or composing blog entries before I forget everything.

Probably once a week I find a laundry or library and top up batteries from AC.

Bike maintenance

Bike maintenance requried so far has been:
  • brake recentering on the front rim
  • brake adjustment on rear
  • tyre liner put in
  • tyre liner destroyed rear tyre and tube (it was old stock so had gone hard) so it was removed and thrown out with great annoyance.
  • a few punctures
  • conti contact on rear replaced with my spare tyre as I kept getting punctures
  • spare tyre isn't very wide so have bought a cheap 700x43 tyre for off-road use ($20)
  • Will get a decent rear tyre with puncture protection in Mildura

Keeping amused
  • Reading David Malouf
  • Reading The Thorn Birds which I picked up at an OP shop.
  • A lot of Radio National listening.
  • "Hippy rants" with fellow travellers.

Things I haven't used
  • Water filter and 10 litre water bag - just haven't had the need yet.
  • I have used everything else in my panniers at least once so unfortunately can't 'send home' anything!
Other notes

Most common questions I get asked include how far do I ride in a day. At the moment, 30 - 70 km, which is pretty easy going.

I often get asked 'Don't you get lonely?'. Well, not so far. There are always interesting people to talk to (or argue politics with), or a good book to read, animals to watch, or trees to wander around looking at. I'm very much enjoying the freedom of being in charge of my own direction and speed. If I was travelling with someone else I'm sure I would be riding a lot further and faster and not finding all the hidden gems - the people and the places - that I am finding now. People go out of their way to track me down and talk to me in some places because they assume (wrongly) I must be interesting and worth talking to because I'm travelling on a bike, so sometimes I almost wish I was lonely!