Wednesday, January 25, 2012

What Australia Day now means to me now I've seen a whole lot more of the place and it's people

Riding around the coastline of Australia (and also the jaunt around the state of Victoria) has opened my eyes to a lot more of Australia than I knew of previously. Some things I had heard about, read about, watched programs on, but it is different to see it for yourself, to talk to people who live far from your home but who are still your fellow country-men-and-women, to feel a part of the every changing but always beautiful landscape by travelling slowly through it with your eyes open to not only the sights but the emotion of it.

I think our exposure to documentaries or marketing written by or aimed at the US, the UK and Asia make us think we are familiar with this land and those who live in it (the people, plants and animals), and to some extent even contemptuous of what we have here. Most of us live in cities, and urban sprawl means many travel large distances daily, but this is still nothing compared to the stretch of roads, tracks or pasture crossed by those living or travelling outside of the metropolis. 

Almost 300 km between roadhouses, and that's on 'highway 1'

Expanse is a word with true meaning here.

Not only is the landmass vast, but so is the variety of people, plants and animals who call it home. It's easy to forget the multitude of different species of lizards who still find a home away from the asphalt and concrete of our large towns and cities, and even the recognizable ones are slightly different in other spots of this wide brown land, so there is variety within varieties

As people we are also similarly diverse. We have different upbringings, different schooling, different lifestyles, different workplaces, different meanings for home. But we all call Australia home, yet so many know so little of their home, like a house full of locked rooms. We will assume we know what's behind each closed door, often incorrectly.

In remote areas, distances between children can be such that schooling is delivered over the airwaves rather that in a classroom, a different experience to our typical classrooms. Our diverse cultures mean children might be educated while walking the landscape, visiting traditional places used for many thousands of years over countless generations, or even through cooking a traditional meal with cultural significance. 

Children in Aboriginal communities often learn a handful of languages before they even begin to learn English words, while the majority of immigrant families maintain their first language as well as English.

I feel ashamed that I am Australian yet only know English. Knowing only one language does not fit with our nations history - neither with Australia's first peoples who typically spoke three or more languages, nor its immigrant past and present, yet we seem to demand the 'common' language be spoken and written with perfect precision by all. The only true common language of this country is a friendly smile and a wave, which works universally to break down unnecessary barriers.

I can't really understand Aussies from the east coast who have been on long haul flights overseas time after time, but haven't seen the west coast, or even the middle bits! Such is our contempt for our own land. There are overseas travelers who have seen more of Australia than the majority of Australians, I KID YOU NOT.

Have you never wondered what would it really be like to live in an isolated community? To understand why 'country folk' hate the hussle and bussle of the cities, and to even feel that way yourself at times? What's it like to grow up as a kid on a cattle property, and follow in your fathers' and grandfathers' footsteps raising stock on the land? How does it feel to be a link in the chain of generations who have lived here for sixty thousand years, with a connection to their land most of us could never fully understand, and to have to fight for the chain to not be broken, for a culture and its languages to live on, for the land to remain as it has for longer than we can imagine? What hurts lie beneath the skin, what communities lie hidden in the vastness? What birds visit this tree; what bugs live under this rock?

For most of us, Australia is a postcard beach, a perfect wave, a vibrant modern city, a coral reef, a tropical island, and this vague idea of desert/outback/emptiness that you can point to on a map but aren't too keen to visit because of a host of passed-down pathetic reasons about dangerous snakes (which I struggled to find many of), scary people (nope) and no decent coffee (well, yes). But just as a vibrating noisy city at night is different from a peaceful hammock-ed paradise island, so that label 'the outback' means an array of different scenes. 

We have deserts with trees. We have bare dirt. We have spiky spinifex in red earth. We have Mallee. We have Mulga. We have salt air mixed with wattle blossom. We have boab-ed savannah. We have emptiness that isn't empty in the least.


Bilby roadsign
Australia is so damn big we breach climate zones. We can migrate within our island such that we might never see a winter. We capture multiple weather systems at the same time. Different weather patterns gives us biodiversity, which is our strength.

We have places where it rains almost all the time, and other spots which might only see one or two days with rain, where a cloud in the big blue sky is almost as rare as teeth on hens. 

Skies! We have different skies in different parts; a diverse array of blues. And different sizes. Sometimes small skies framed with Eucalypts; sometimes our skies are large enough to make anyone feel small and insignificant, but even still... deliriously happy to looking up at it. Our night skies away from the city light pollution are literally breath-taking; I would say even eerily beautiful.

Even staying in the one spot you can be witness to the climate variability of our land, which is only expected to become more variable as climate change impacts us; and possibly more so than any other large nation. Mother nature's volume can be turned up to 11 here. One day will be drought and then next a vicious flood, a wall of water, will bring down trees, kill animals and sometimes us with water and toxins. Cyclones will leave entire mountains looking like three day old stubble instead of lush forests; just the sight of these denuded mountains is enough to make your hair stand on end at the force of a wind.

So this Australia Day, know that you don't know much, and dare yourself to find out more. Be a tourist in your own country. Embrace the diversity; don't be afraid of it. Delight in its delights. Learn its real history, not what you were fed in school. Challenge your (mis)conceptions of its different people; find out what makes us all the same. Ask questions; take an interest. Learn more about the less cuddly critters. MOST OF ALL: DISCOVER AUSTRALIA FOR YOURSELF, figure out your own reasons to love it and learn all about it, and care for its diverse land and its diverse people. There is no place on earth like it.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Circumnavigation of Australia is complete!

Yesterday at noon I arrived back in Melbourne after riding my bicycle around Australia. A welcoming party greeted me as I rode to the Burke and Wills Cairn in Royal Park. (This cairn marks the place where Burke and Wills commenced their "successful but fatal" journey. And was chosen as a bit of silly fun. Not entirely in good taste.)

Map of the route
Everyone waiting patiently for my slightly late arrival

Release the hounds. Actually just Nick's dog Ned greeting me.

Parking at the Burke and Wills Cairn, retrieving Vic Market goodies (mostly wine).

There was cake!

There were camels! Possibly the first time since 1860 this cairn has seen camels.

Coming home from Maree BikeTourOz on Vimeo. Thanks to camera man Marc ()

The story so far...

On the 2nd of July 2010 I left Melbourne to ride around Victoria for three months. 

The first 1000. In Mallee Victoria.

I returned to Melbourne for a fortnight before leaving again on the 10th October 2010 to head east along the VIC coastline, up the east coast to Brisbane. (Early December I side-tripped to Canberra. I stayed in Newcastle for two weeks around Christmas and New Years).

I stayed in Brisbane for three months, waiting for the floods to ease and the Bruce Highway to stop closing every two days.

On the 5th of May 2011 I headed off again up the east coast, riding up to Cooktown via the Bloomfield Track, back to Cairns via the Mulligan Highway (inland) and along the Savannah Way (Gulf Development Rd) to Normanton and Kurumba. Next I rode the Matilda way down to Cloncurry and Mt Isa, riding to the NT border and up to Darwin, via Kakadu, by mid August.

From Darwin headed (via Litchfield) to Broome, then the big stretch between roadhouses (300 k between Roebuck and Sandfire) to Port Hedland. Down the west coast to Perth, Albany, Esperance. 

From Esperance headed up to Kalgoorlie, caught the Indian Pacific to Adelaide. Rode back via the Nullarbor. Caught a flight from Esperance to Adelaide. Rode on back to Melbourne.

Arrived in Melbourne on the 7th January 2012, 24050 km later.

Next up is a well-earned bike service followed by Tasmania for cycling, farm work and some hiking.

Some favourite places...

(In order of visiting)

The Mighty Murray River

The Murray flooded for the first time in over ten years when I visited it. It knocked down gum trees and forced emus to swim like giant ducks across what was National Park camping areas. My plan had been to ride along the dirt tracks next to the river, instead of the highway. This didn't eventuate because Murray Mud is not bicycle friendly in the least.

Sea Cliff Bridge

South of Sydney there is a road called Grand Pacific Drive which includes a road that overhangs the sea called Sea Cliff Bridge. Cyclists and pedestrians get a much better view than the car drivers as the shared path is on the eastern side of the road.

Savannah Way, Queensland: Cairns to Normanton, and up to Kurumba

This was my first experience of the outback on the bike. I loved the isolation, the early morning light, the wildlife, the long distances. I especially loved the sunsets and star-filled skies. This was also the first time I managed to ride over 100 kilometres in a day, riding a couple of 130 km days. That distance per day was soon to become the default.

Kakadu and Litchfield

Friends John and Yve drove me out to Ubirr one night I stayed at Kakadu NP where they have a spectacular sunset. This place just looks like another world. It is a paradise.

Ubirr, Kakadu NP

Ubirr, Kakadu NP

Ubirr, Kakadu NP

Litchfield National Park has similar vegetation to some parts of Kakadu National Park, and it has some stunning waterfalls and swimming holes.

Victoria River and Gregorys National Park

The Kimberley and the Pilbara

The Kimberleys and the Pilbara region are areas that have their own spirit. The colours you will see at dusk and dawn print themselves onto your soul and will never leave you. There is amazing wildlife, but its the colours that I can see when I close my eyes that really sum up these places, yet are hard to describe. Best you see them for yourself! 

Elliston, South Australia (on the Eyre Peninsula)

This place has an interesting little bite out of the coast and you can see some interesting cliffs and columns. It's a bit of a gem this place.

Bunda Cliffs and the Nullarbor Plain

More glorious isolation and see for miles roads. The Bunda Cliffs of the Great Australian Bight are amazing. Photos don't do it justice. I loved my camp in the Nullarbor Plain watching the sunset and sunrise. Not as much wildlife as you'll see in other places, surprisingly. Not as many lizards or snakes or wedgetail eagles from what I could tell. Plenty of vegetation changes over the trip from Ceduna to Norseman to keep it interesting. I went all out and rode 172 km one day and a 200 km day a few days later. It's good to know what you are capable of.

Esperance Great Ocean Drive and Cape Le Grand

Esperance has some stunning white-sand beaches and clear, bright blue water, and there is a bike path most of the way along the Great Ocean Drive.

Lucky Bay and Cape Le Grand Beach are also stunning with clean white sand. The surrounding national park is very scenic with mountains. Plenty of kangaroos live here and you can sometimes see them laying on the beach.

Great Ocean Road

The Great Ocean Road in Victoria may be stunning by car, but by bicycle it is  spectacular. The thing with the Great Ocean Road is that the road winds its way up hills and around the coast line - this means if you're in a car you need to watch the road. On a bicycle you have much more time for taking in the sights that are all along the journey, not just where there are car parks. The hills aren't so bad if you've ridden up the east coast's hills. The Laver's Hill and Otways are reasonable tasks but if I can do it carrying 50 kg with no granny gears (worn out to the point of chain slippage), anyone can.

A big thanks to...

My mum for driving me nuts ringing me all the time to check I was still alive.

My support team in Melbourne... Tony sending through my spare parts and Cassy, Peta and Luke for letting me surf their couches, and bon voyaging and welcome homing.

All the people who put me up (and put up with me) for the night or several nights or helped out in other ways, including Glenys and Max from Rosebud, Yve and John in Jabiru, The Chesters in Perth, Lyn and Mike in Adelaide, Roz and Dallas in Port Hedland, Andy in Lancefield, Suzanna from Sydney, and John from Swan Hill.

People who have donated money, including Peter and Erika.

Thanks to Adam from Switzerland for listening to my rants and helping pushing my bike up the Bloomfield Track. 

All the cycle tourists who I met on the road, for a chat with a like-minded soul or a friendly wave and a big grin when we couldn't stop to chat. 

Anyone who's ever said Hi on twitter, in an email, or commented on the blog.