Tuesday, July 28, 2015

A range of emotions

The very first kilometre at the start of the Mawson Trail begins to sort the wheat from the chaff, with a series of climbs with a gradient of about 30% straight away. The resident llamas watch you push your laden touring bike up the unsealed track. I offered a pat in return for them pushing my bike up but they just blankly stared and blinked at me. The Mawson Trail starts near the end of the Torrens River ride into the Adelaide hills. From there you follow a lovely ride (if it were not for the Sunday drivers hooning the area) along the trickling river with a cool, green and moist riparian environment, before it turns onto a dirt road and then the trail begins.

The progress was very slow as the gradient was too much to ride unless you have a mountain bike unburdened by gear, perhaps, where the slippery clay-ladden track with loose stones gave me flashbacks of the challenging sections of the Daintree's Bloomfield track. The scenery is amazing, and plenty of kangaroos scamper off only the stop and turn to look at you curiously, and I certainly had plenty of time to admire both in the slow trudge. By the time we made camp in a clearing we could see over the Gulf St Vincent in the distance, from whence we came, with enough time to pitch tents before the sun melted into its waters.

Next morning we continued to follow the mountain bike trail, which gets you back onto sealed backroads for a very early lunch in Lobethal, then roads and tracks of varying surface and rural scenes to Birdwood for afternoon without too much climbing hills. We rode on and managed to find a tiny bit of scrub to camp in amongst the "No camping" pine forest and pastural properties.

Next day we head into the Barossa. The Mawson trail has plenty of bits where someone mountain-bikey has gone "hey won't this be fun to ride through this forest" where they want you to lift your bike over things a lot. This is easy enough with bike alone but is a frustrating barrier for a touring bike rider. I don't recommend following every twist and turn, but rather make up your own route based on what looked less convoluted and less corrugated, to save on sanity and spokes. The up and then down down down down through Steingarten is dripping with scenery, and also extremely fun if you are feeling suicidal and don't want to use your brakes. After that we kind of lost the trail but followed the Jack Bobridge track past Jacobs Creek winery along the North Para River to find Tununda. Plenty of chances to stop off at wineries this way. Nurioopta was a quick ride up the rail trail from here, where we stayed overnight.

After visiting the Nurioopta bakery next morning to eat three plates of food (that was just me) we started to follow the Mawson trail again but abandoned it pretty quickly when it tried to get us to ride through some mud soup when there were perfectly reasonable alternatives. We rode along Truro road and into Kapunda for a pub lunch, then headed out of Tarlee road into a headwind, turning off to follow the trail again at Taylors Run road (honestly, if its winter and you aren't equipped for cyclocross, just use Ryelands Road). Again mud was our companion, until we found a triangle of bush overlooking some sheep grazing and looking over towards some wind turbines, to camp for the night. A frosty night. The sheep weren't saying "Baaa" but "Brrr".

Next morning, again not strickly sticking to the Mawson trail because it does weird horrible things, we enjoyed the Cornvale Road and Gants Hill Road scenery as we picked a route that wasn't "EVERY MUD ROAD IN SA" to ride into Riverton, for breakfast at the Deli. From here we enjoyed (despite the headwind) the Rattler rail trail into the quiet Auburn where we had a picnic lunch with a couple of local beers. We then rode along the also very nice Riesling trail, through numerous vineyards, into Clare where we stayed overnight.

The Riesling trail now goes as far as the locality of Barinia, so we followed it to there the next day (after a bakery breakfast), before heading straight up the fairly quiet Horrocks Highway and RM Williams way in a very strong, gusty headwind or crosswind throughout the day, into Spalding and then Jamestown, through pasture (which makes it extra gusty with no windbreaks to protect us), and camping at the very quiet Jamestown for the night.

The headwinds were worse the next day. This makes the finches and even galahs all act like budgies, flocking and flying around in crazy patterns. The galahs doing this were particularly impressive, the flickering between pink and grey as the flocks of 30 or more birds danced across the sky. We rode as far as Orroroo before calling it quits for the day (as the winds were just getting worse and trying to destroy our knees). The wind got up to gusts of over 50 km/h in the evening so we think we made the right call.

Next day we ride into Carrieton for a pub lunch and a couple of glasses of wine, again with a headwind strong enough to snuff the pubs fireplace. Once you leave Carrieton you start to get into the ranges more and the soil starts to change colour into a pink, or apricot and even a dry-blood red in places, with the silver foliage of semi-arid flora starting to cover more and more of the ground. The brilliant silver of the low growing shrubs dotted all over the green hills reminds me of similar scenes in the Pilbara, where it is spinifex instead. You can see the dreamy blue ranges on your horizon now, stretching out before you and waiting to embrace you like open arms. We ride 80 km into the locality of Cradock, where the pub lets you camp for free out the back if you buy a drink and a meal which we were more than happy to do, and enjoyed immensely (although I was defeated by the size). By 6pm the wind dropped down to nothing and we could, for the first time in days, hear our own thoughts instead of just the wind's.

Next morning a fog slowly rolled off the ranges in the distance, to reveal themselves to us, and we slowly packed up to ride the short distance into Hawker. The views of the Ranges just leave you grinning, with their different geology poking out from amongst the green and silver plants. Some peaks look like sleeping stegasaurs; others with layers of chocolate and pumpkin colours stacked in stone.

Sun sinking into the Gulf St Vincent

Camp on the Mawson trail

Mawson trail (Steingarten view)

Rail trail





Just outside Hawker

RM Williams Way

RM Williams Way

Mawson trail

Mawson trail

Rail trail

Mawson trail

Mawson trail

Mawson trail

Mawson trail

First 1000 km

Steingarten view

Rail trail





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Saturday, July 18, 2015

Schadenfreude clouds that wait until exactly when you take your coat off

We were heading east on the island, as we had planned for the afternoon, to make it to camp with the westerly wind at our backs. The wind gusts were so strong by this time of the day that it was pushing us uphill without pedalling on a dirt road. Unfortunately, we weren't able to ride with the wind the whole time this weather system was passing by -- several days.

The day before we were still on the mainland, but it was the same wind, with gusts of about 50 km/h or more, as we travelled slowly towards Cape Jervis and the ferry to Kangaroo Island. The distance between Port Elliot where we rested a day, and Cape Jervis is about 70 km, but with gradient of little respite, made more challenging by the relentless wind in our faces or pushing us this way in that from the sides, like we were simply flags unfurled. The occasional dump of rain without warning meant we were never too sure to take off our raincoats and rain pants (aka sauna suits with the hill climbs) without being drenched as soon as we did so by the overhead schadenfreude clouds.

The ride out of the sleepy Port Elliot started off with a quiet meander along the coast, but from the bluff outside Victor Harbor, what we couldn't see of whales we could see the rise ahead of us. Despite a vain hope to pick a less hilly route off the horizon, we had to admit the skyward rise of asphalt in the short distance was our lot. Oh, to have tax payers money at your disposal for a lazy helicopter ride.

The headwinds soon became apparent as we rode amongst the rural properties filled with sheep, cows, and property owners who named their plots "Sinkatinny Downs" and the like; the fence lines bordered with giant 3 metre tall by 3 metre wide globe-shaped Xanthorrhea (grass trees) with broad strappy leaves that slapped loudly in the wind, sounding like a monstrous metal slinky toys, descending stairs.

After tens of kilometres of slow ascents we found the high point, which just means more wind finds you. As you get closer to Jervis you see the spectacular wind turbines, all operating near capacity -- the wind farm here was the first in South Australia -- but with their nacelles turned with their backs to you -- never a good sign -- you are straight into the headwind. Later, with only a few kilometres left to Cape Jervis ferry terminal you are given a gift that is also a burden -- the 2 km long descent back down to sea level, erasing all your hard work for the day, diminishing your vertical achievements to zero, and also the terror that you'll have to climb back out this way when you come back this way in a few days. But what the heck: you take the middle of the lane and drop into the waterside town as quick as you dare.

The ferry ride was the 6pm Friday service, full of weekend locals and weekend tourists, and not too long into the 45 minute, rocky sea voyage across Backstairs Passage, many green faces. From where we were sitting in the middle of the ferry, I dared not look back to see how many people were loitering around the toilets, paper bags in hand, but we did have to run a gauntlet of towels on the floor to get back down the staircase to our bicycles once we'd docked at Penneshaw on Kangaroo Island.

The weather was decidedly dreary as we pushed our bikes up the climb to the town centre and found our accommodation. It was already well dark, threatening to rain, and cold and windy. We checked into the YHA, then made our way to the sanctuary that is the Penny Hotel for a great meal and local wine. The rain poured down.

The ride out of Penneshaw during an Antarctic vortex is pretty painful, and I don't recommend it. It has a steep descent immediately you leave town and no real shoulder to buffer you from the cars doing 100 where they are able to. The wind dared us to give up hope of finding the top. Not far up the road I noticed part of my front rack was broken; probably from getting pushed into a road barrier the day before by a gust of cross wind. I stopped for half an hour to fix it. Some more climbing and we found a winery. With the wind being ridiculous we cut across the Dudley Peninsula towards a campsite at Chapman River. This was a dirt track way to go, and with the rain some of the road was muddy so your tyres slipped as your tried to ride up it. By mid afternoon the wind was strong enough, and at our backs, that it was pushing us up hills. We found a picnic area and sheltered under its roof from the successive bouts of pouring rain. The wind knocked over the wheelie bins full of rubbish. At dark we just set up the tent under the shelter, but the wind threatened to blow us away despite the shelter, pulling at the tent all night.

The weather wasn't letting up and we really were feeling defeated (having ridden only 40 km in 3 hours, and most of the interesting critters hiding away from sight) so, when we sheltered the next morning at Dudley winery (recommend!) we decided to book back at Penneshaw and (blasphemy) hire a car to get us to the sights we wanted to see without killing our knees. There were so many places when we were driving where we just wished our bikes were with us so we could actually SEE things. The car did make it easier to get to places but it really did feel like being locked in a box compared to the freedom of riding. Driving was an exercise in trying not to run over critters: we succeeded in this yes, but The same thing on the bikes is just experiencing the wildlife in its environment. The echidnas that walked out in front of the car: if that happened on a bike I'd be taking photos and laughing at their ridiculous walk for ages. The Kangaroo Island kangaroos are amazing to see up close on a bike. The day we rode out of Chapman River, a massive male kangaroo stepped out from behind a bush so we stopped and the roo was staring at us as we stared at it. We got to see how different they are from mainland kangaroos as we both gazed as each other with intrigue. The roo didn't see us as a threat (and why would it; have you seen those pecs?) or a box of metal hurtling by, but as a curiosity.

As soon as we entered Flinders Chase National Park we yearned for our bikes locked up on the other side of the island. The place is just magic, and there are critters everywhere if you have the right speed to see them. The colours of the vegetation and the filtered light is just something we have to do at the right speed one day. As we hardly ever drive anywhere, something that is shocking is how cars don't enable as much as the miracle you think they might when they hurtle past you while you are riding. Driving from one end of the island to the other still took half a day, and we ended up driving back to Penneshaw at dusk, which we hated doing because of the risk to wildlife. You can't see anything properly from a car -- it honestly felt a strange prison where you just wanted to have a better look at this or that, which you can do on a bike without even thinking -- but you just couldn't stop. You either had to rush off to this place or rush back, or there was a car on your tail, or it wasn't safe to pull over. Cars might represent freedom for many, but I disagree that they are freedom. Bicycles are work, but its rewarded work, and the price of some leg pumps is a freedom that can only be fully explained by a bike ride like we are undertaking. Having said all that, hills in headwinds are something we didn't miss inside our borrowed metal cocoon during this particular weather pattern.

While on the island, we also visited the gin distillery. They had limited stocks of a Mulberry gin which managed to pick up a bottle of, as well as a ginger and orange liqueur which warms in any weather. We also dropped into Emu Ridge eucalyptus farm (yes, they have resident Emus) which is a fine story of Aussie ingenuity as you'll find of many who work on the land, etching out a crust from what they had available.

The ferry ride back to the mainland was fairly smooth in comparison to the other direction, but of course the lumpy road towards Adelaide was ahead of us. Although you don't actually get off to push your bike up the hill up, it does get to the slow speed with a loaded bicycle that you think you may as well. We travelled through lots of rural properties, most with sheep that will either run to the other side of the paddock on your approach or will just stand there staring at you as you stare at ewe. Lots of cute lambs that were huddling together out of the cold wind could be seen; I wanted to join in. As we rode into Myponga, there is a crazy Scottish scene of green hills that roll off into cavernous drops with sheep standing on tiny bits of the highest ground on the precipice of steep crevices. You roll around the corner of one of these and the waterfront opens up before you. All of a sudden its a change of pace: the road is flat rather than incessant climb, the wind that's been in your ears for days is now filled with out of the blue quiet, except the sound of rolling waves. You smell seaweed and salt on the air.

From Cape Jervis we ride as far as Aldinga Beach to stay overnight (there is a sneaky way you can ride in a straight line along Justs Road that you can only do on foot or bike to get here). From there we find the Coast to Vines rail trail to the Seaford train station, and on into Adelaide to start the Mawson trail ride to Flinders Ranges. Because we haven't seen enough hills yet.

Port Elliot Horseshoe Bay
Port Elliot at dawn
Wind farm at Cape Jervis
Tree tunnels near Penneshaw, KI
Dirt road KI
Chapman River KI
Cape Du Couedic Lighthouse
Cape Du Couedic
NZ Fur Seals, KI
NZ Fur Seals, KI
Admirals Arch, KI
Remarkable Rocks, Flinders Chase, KI
Remarkable Rocks, Flinders Chase, KI
Remarkable Rocks, Flinders Chase, KI
Remarkable Rocks, Flinders Chase, KI

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Gone like a shooting star

Murray River at Major Mitchell camp

Tooleybuc bridge

Mallee road

Murray River crossing at Euston

Take me to the moon


Karoonda railway

Stars with tent


The frost missed us, just

Murray full moon reflections

Sunset mallee camp

Morning murray

Morning from the road

Sheep country

The shooting star burned a path across a quarter of the sky before dying abruptly. Less than a week ago we were still in Melbourne where you can see the Southern Cross as one of only a few groups of stars not drowned out by the light pollution called a city. But here, camped in the Mallee scrub, we can barely identify the Southern Cross amongst the myriad of other stars burning just as brightly. We have to find the pointer stars to be sure of its location. Minutes earlier we both saw the same shooting star and exclaimed simultaneously into the otherwise silent darkness. No need to make a wish.

Last Wednesday, our day jobs on hold for six months, we caught a train out to Swan Hill to kick off the long ride that will take us to Kangaroo Island off the South Australian coast, up the Mawson Trail to the Flinders Ranges, "up the middle" to Katatjuta and Uluru. Onwards, further north to Katherine, Wolf Creek crater, the Bungle Bungles, Broome, down the West Coast through Kimberleys and Pilbera towards Perth where we will follow the Munda Biddi trail to Albury on the south coast; then traverse across the vast country to return home.

As we left Swan Hill, we were already mixing it with trucks - Wednesday must be a particularly heavy freight day in the area - on the main highway along the Murray River, and it wasn't long until the sun was in our eyes telling us to find a camp before the road (or something on it) got to us. We pulled down a dirt track to one of Major Mitchell's camps on the Murray. The sky was an amazing blue with wispy cirrus and contrails, all reflected in this quiet bend of the river. We found a spot free of River Red gums; perched with their visible roots, barely clutching at the bank, like at any moment they'd dive into the frosty river. Collecting some native nettles, we added them to some cous cous and tuna; boiling them to remove any sting.

Early the next morning, three kangaroos hopped nearby, waking me briefly to glance out of the tent at them. I love the sound of their big feet, like a strong steady heartbeat. We eventually rise also, and head to Tooleybuc. The lift span bridge warns of its limitations, and the flock of pigeons that reside on its structure leave with haste and a flash of grey wings whenever a truck passes on it, like they know something we don't.

Later that day on the road, I unexpectedly witness a fluffy white chick being stolen from a nest by a large grey bird of prey I can't recognise. Mallee gums and saltbush watch us pass from the sides of the road here; the bronze of the leaves and bark suit the red soil underneath.

When we reach camp, down a dirt river-access track off Tol Tol road on the outskirts of Robinvale, and follow its bends to the river bank, a large flock of cormorants takes off all at once. The pelicans remain, big and prideful enough to stay put for the likes of us. There is no one else around, so we scout around for a prize spot. The river reds are the frame of any picture of a wide river with pelicans lazily drifting around like sailboats, this way and that on the whim of chasing fish; the occasional water plops signal a carp surfacing; the blue sky slowing giving way to sunset gold.

Someone else arrives and sets up a campfire slightly upstream. This is what the Murray would have looked like -- campfires along the banks, but of course the Murray has changed a lot since then. More recent history of the man they called 'Possum' - a shearer who hadn't paid his dues in the 1920s and too full of pride or shame to return to Irish family, lived on the Murray the rest of his days in solitary: sleeping in tree hollows and subsiding on what the Murray would offer him. He walked the length of the Murray once or twice, and even buried himself up to the neck once to get away from the mosquitoes.

"When we were kids, we used to catch mussels in the River Murray by simply standing up in the river, looking down at our feet, and kicking up the mussels we saw. The water was that clear. The carp soon ruined that." This is the story a man who may have been in his 90s told me once when I was visiting the area.

But as we camp in the now, we see the planets Jupiter and Venus aligned on one side of the sky, and the moon rising over the river the other, reflected in perfect facsimile.

Next, we are riding on the Sturt Highway - the mix of birds of prey circling on thermals and the vehicles of prey that drive below them. But even with the graceful flight of wedge tails, with minor corrections to flight made with tail features and wing, there is little space for admiring gazes skywards because the road is narrow and doesn't like sharing; lest we become prey ourselves. We are joined by spinifex grass now, nettled amongst the Mallee gum. Ten kilometres out of the next town we spot some bush down a dirty road, so head in to make camp. The stunning sunset was the opening act before the main show: the star filled dome.

The next day we rode along a quiet, remote C-route to get to the Murray Sunset National Park. In the afternoon we were stopped for a snack, when a man in a ute pulled up on the wrong side of the road to lean out his window and say in a gruff voice "Where ya headed?". If that isn't a scene from "Wolfe Creek 15: Why do we even still have tourism" I don't know what is.

After the final 10 km of gravel track, we make it to the Murray Sunset park at sundown. The stars gradually arrive for their shift and we glance up every 5 minutes or so and get blown away again by their number and beauty. As we get into the tent, a huge orange moon rises from the low scrub; but it isn't long before we sleep.

Next morning, crossing the border into South Australia and making it through the quarantine checkpoint, we head towards the bogan centre that is Loxton, via a C-road, to get supplies for the next few days where we won't see many services. We're heading down the Karoonda Highway, which is a rail-trail of sorts: the road running close enough to the no-longer-used track most of the time, with localities (no longer towns) spaced about 10 miles (16 km apart). Karoonda is aboriginal for 'winter camp' according to Google, so it seems appropriate. The road is fairly quiet and has green parrots and wedge tails to keep my interest. After 90 km we find the bush camp with the shooting stars and satellites I mentioned earlier.

Next day we have some rain and headwinds. I spot some mammatus clouds that look a lot like a face - with puffy cheeks and a mouth. Out of the mouth sprouts a rainbow. A technicolour yawn cloud! A truck barrels towards me, bringing with it a cloud of water vapour it has picked up along the way from the wet road. I pass into the cloud of wet and turbulance like it might consume me. We are still on the Karoonda highway and make it into the town of its namesake in the afternoon, emptying it of its snackfoods on approach. This is a land of Poll Merino stud farms and wheat. Karoonda is the only town of consequence on the line, with huge silos taking the harvest from the grain trucks that pour it in over a grid at the bottom of the silos. The town is pretty much just a service station and a IGA store.

The headwinds have been wearing us out slowly like a slow release poison, but as we leave town the headwinds have kicked up a few notches - the grass on the side of the road is now at 45 degrees. Not far out of town I pull into a siding and we carry out bikes over the railway line to camp on the edge of a plot of pasture. We are exhausted and merely stare at the ground before mustering the will to pitch camp and cook food.

Recovered, the next sun up we continue on to Tailem Bend to cross the Murray on the ferry (after visiting the bakery), and then on to Wellington, whose pub overlooks another ferry crossing (and whose beer and fish burgers I can recommend). We then skirt around Lake Alexandria to head into Langhorne Creek where to take camp at a roadside stop.

The stars are still amazing at night here. We are about 60 km from Port Elliot where we will "port" for 2 nights, and do some whale watching if we are lucky. We are looking forward to Kangaroo Island and the promise of more golden sunsets and star-filled nights.

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