Tuesday, September 15, 2015

We are a shade-seeking missiles

We spent a day on the back of an adventure bus, hiding from a horrendous headwind, and doing a 'recce run' for a ride we want to do out into the West MacDonnell ranges next year. The whole trip we were wishing we were riding our bikes, because we always wanted the bus to stop so we could just admire this scene or that through the impressive ranges of either side of the road. The traditional owners believe the ranges to be itchy bugs, processionary caterpillars (bag-shelter moths) and they really do look like caterpillars, all following each other in a line. We visited chasm and gorges, ochre pits and the world's oldest river. I will talk more about this place after our bike trip out there!

The best shots I could manage of the West Macdonnell Ranges from the bus :(

Simpsons Gap
Ochre pit
Finke River, thought to be the world's oldest
Ormiston Gorge

As we left Alice Springs, after munching our way through a pizza breakfast (yes, again), we visit a bike shop to get some chain lube and then head to Bunnings for more metho ($3.30 for 1 litre; drivers licence photocopied). Just as I am about to ride into the giant Bunnings car park, a 4WD drives straight into a car stopped to turn into another driveway, right beside, me on the Stuart Highway. No squeal of brakes, just the crunch and smash of bull bar into metal and plastic and glass. The station wagon that was hit ended up about about 3/4 the length it was supposed to be; the back crumpled up to the rear passenger seats. The shock of the noise and how close it was set me on edge for about an hour afterwards; heart racing and fingers shaking. How can someone just drive straight into the back of another car?

As we travelled North, all too quickly our tailwind turned to a crosswind. North of Alice Springs there are interesting rocky ridges to pass by. We crossed the Tropic of Capricorn, topped up our water at a rainwater tank, and split open some Bloodwood apples (also known as bush coconuts) to try the fleshy insides. We rode on to the Warburton memorial for lunch amongst some meagre shade. Further on we pass the Tanami track and not-seriously consider taking this turn. We are riding in an "open speed limit area" which means drivers can drive however fast they want; they are advised to stick to their abilities, but this is not reassuring as you ride along and people zip past so fast you can't see them coming in your mirrors. Three sports cars pass at travelling in excess of 200 km/h, including a black Lamborghini. We top up our water again at the Conner's well rainwater tank. As we click over a little over 100 km for the day we camp behind some trees with a view to some pretty ranges. As night falls the stars come out and we see the International Space Station pass over. During the night I'm woken by a dingo walking about without any stealth in the long grass. Eventually we convince it to shoo. The rude awakening does allow us to see the orange moon rising to the east, at whatever time of the morning it is.

Bloodwood apples (bush coconuts)

Bloodwood apple (bush coconut)

Termite mounds make great wind breaks, it seems
Beautiful range from camp
Sunset gradients
Scenery north of Alice

Next morning at Aileron roadhouse we have a toastie and orange juice for breakfast. There is a giant metallic structure on the hill above; Big Man Walk is a statue of an Anmatjere Man holding a spear, 17m tall and weighing 8 tonne. We ride on to a rest area to find water and before reaching Ti Tree we come across something unexpected. A mango farm. In the middle of Australia. We consume some very delicious mango ice cream and mango sorbet. And buy some Mango Moonshine - fortified wine. We continue on to Ti Tree for lunch as the Bush Bus (a community bus for the area) is waiting to depart. The last two days has seen a steady stream of shiny cars (either on the road, or on the back of trailers) heading the other direction, south to Alice Springs for the Red Centre NATS show and shine. We are glad to be out of Alice Springs before on the arrival of the bogan monsoon. But we are not looking forward to the possibility of still riding in the open speed limit area as these guys head back north.

And thank goodness
They have signs like this in the open speed limit area! 17%, we drank this over three nights

I notice I have a broken spoke on my rear wheel, cassette side, so we fix it with a fibre fix kevlar spoke and it works wonders. Its a very easy bit of kit to work with that doesn't require you to carry around chain whip and wrench. I can recommend it to bike tourists as it is lightweight, inexpensive, and indispensable when you break a spoke on the rear cassette side (it's always there, ain't it?) and no where near a bike mechanics help.

The miracle that is a kevlar spoke
We are travelling through an area with lots of termite mounds, growing in number and size as we travel north. It seems like every bloodwood tree in this area has at least 30 bush coconuts. Mulga parrots sometimes dart out from the trees; but the budgies and zebra finches, and even galahs, put on the most entertaining shows, flying in twisting and turning formations in groups of tens or hundreds. The temperature goes up as our latitude decreases. It is Spring now, and you don't need to consult a calendar to know; the trees are lush, green, and dripping in nectar. The birds are all manic on the sugary drug.  Crested pigeons are courting in the middle of the road like imbeciles. We camp down a track near the Ghan railway line amongst wildflowers and Grevillea in bloom, growing infinitely more beautiful in the sunset light. During the night the Ghan train rattles past with all its carriages; we could hear it coming like a roll of thunder down the line.

Ghan railway line
Golden grevillea sunset
Spring is here
Sunset track and bloodwood, from camp

Heading towards Wycliffe Well for breakfast, tens of brown kites are all flying down the road, eyes peeled for last nights roadkill, casting ominous shadows over us that send shivers. We eat some breakfast at Wycliffe Well roadhouse, then ride the short distance to Wauchope where the hotel has recently been "reopened" with the new name "Devils Marbles Hotel". On the way something that sounds like a truck and looks like a truck in my mirrors approaches and then passes us; it is a giant caravan being pulled by a giant four-wheel drive and the back of the caravan brandishes the brand name "Stealth". I nearly fall off my bike laughing at how absurd this is. The hotel counter mentions a banana milkshake and who can go past a banana milkshake?

It's too early for lunch but the menu does look enticing, so we ride a kay down the road to find some shade for a couple of hours, before heading back to sample the menu and drink beer. Some hours later we ride the 10 km to Karlu Karlu (which means 'round boulders', often known to white fellas as Devils Marbles) and put our bikes in a dry creek bed while we find shade. I find the intact remains of a Inland Freshwater Crab (Austrothelphusa transversa) amongst the river stones; its attempt to survive a drought unsuccessful somehow. These crabs are common and they survive by making burrows up to a one metre deep in the banks of freshwater rivers and creeks where they stay (in a dormant state) during the dry season or even extended drought for maybe six years (or more). This makes it similar to the Burrowing Frog.

As it gets cooler to walk over to Karlu Karlu (Devils Marbles) from our hidden spot, and walk amongst the giant red boulders as the sun sets. An uprising of molten rock cooled beneath sandstone and as the granite became solid, fractured into blocks which have since eroded into rounded boulders. Some of the piles of granite rocks have native figs growing out of them; promising pools of water wherever their roots have reached deep down. The reserve is also home to Spiny-tailed goanna, sand goanna, zebra and painted finches, as well as Fairy Martins which make bottle-shaped mud nests attaching them under overhanging boulders.

Next morning, we again visit Karlu Karlu as the sun rises. After breakfast, we ride about 18 km to fill up water from the Bonney Well tank. The days are getting really hot warm now and our eyes scour the sides of the highway for nice shade trees, even when we know we can't stop. About 40 km from Tennant Creek I find a bar of reception, so call my Dad for Fathers' Day and also wish my folks a happy 40th wedding anniversary.

Territorians seem to have a predilection for putting clothing on termite mounds, so as you travel along the Stuart HIghway you think there are people up ahead, but its just some termite mound in an Australian flag shirt, or bikini, or hi viz work clothes, or hot pink shirt. Or some tourists have made up a shirt that says "Debbie and Darren 2013" and put a beer bottle in an improvised termite mound mouth.

By about 2 pm my bike computer's thermometer reads at least 40 degrees as we ride along. We ride til about 3pm and then try to find some shade for 60 or 90 minutes of respite, where I generally lie down and siesta in heat stress. We have basically turned into kangaroos. This time we figure we are close enough to town where we want to head tomorrow (about 15 km from Tennant Creek) so we make camp at 3pm.

Life savers

Sunrise at Karlu Karlu

Next morning, we breakfast in Tennant Creek at a cafe and then visit the Mobil service station where you can shower for free (just ask for the toilet key). We visit the laundromat and drink slushies while we wait for the cycle to finish, even though its only 9am. As I walk back from the slushie shop, a local woman is asking someone for a few dollars to buy something in the clothing shop and the bloke next to him goes "Oh just give her 50 bucks, you black bastard", and I laugh and smile at this typical, self-depricating, "black" style of humour. We go to the library and its sanctuary from the heat while our clothes dry on our bikes, looking up books about reptiles and flora and reading adventure and outback magazines. The NT news has a cover story that features the very cars that overtook us at over 200 km/h days before. Apparently it was all part of a publicity thing for the Chief Minister of the NT (he's basically like a state premier) to announce that the scary open speed limit areas trial was to become permanent and not only that but extended in distance because only one person died and not enough were injured to call the trial into question. Fuck. He announced this at the Red Centre NATS bogan fest. Looking out for 'I bogan and I vote' bumper stickers in NT fishin' and ammo stores as we speak.

After lunch on the sandwiches we make, we do a shop at the Foodbarn and then decide its too damn hot so hang out in the shade behind the Foodbarn for hours, I'm sure being pesky white fellas taking valuable shade space from the aunties and uncles and other locals who congregate there socially. There are at least 15 kites that circle over Tennant Creek all day, so we are entertained by them, especially one that was circling us as we were eating lunch. Finally, at 5pm we ride out of town towards the man made lake. There is a bike path to Lake Mary Ann called the Ted Ryko bike path. Ted Reichenbach cycled from Adelaide to Darwin (3000 km) along the telegraph line in 1914, breaking a 1898 record, calling it a "Very pleasant experience, and in fact a very good holiday" when he beat the next best attempt by 15 hours and 23 minutes having taken "a little too long taking photographs". The cycle path goes through some amazing spinifex and ghost gum dotted rocky ridges to get to the grass lined lake, a favourite for swimming. You aren't allowed to camp at the lake itself, so we camped about a kilometre away in the gibber and spinifex. The stars were amazing, despite how close we were to town.

Bike path to the lake
Bike path to the lake
View from camp
View from camp
If you've ever wondered what a spinifex dotted rocky ridge looks like up close

Riding the very small distance the next morning for breakfast, the easterly wind coming off the lake was so strong we had a lot of trouble making porridge with our stoves. We were not looking forward to riding in such a strong crosswind, but it turned out to be mostly a tailwind once we were back on the highway. We quickly rode towards the Three Ways roadhouse where we had a toastie and about 1 km up the road we met Kevin from Tassie who had ridden from Perth (via East Timor) and is heading to Alice Springs for a flight back home (after the trip out to Uluru). We chatted for about an hour about the roads and the other road users and the scenery and the wildlife. Again another hot day, and we were glad we weren't riding into a headwind like Kevin. That night we found a old section of the Stuart highway, possibly a diversion while they were building the underground road for the Bootu Creek manganese mine. I call roads overgrown with acacia and grass 'Post peak oil roads' because it is kind of a sneak peak into a 'the world after us', or how quickly nature takes back what humans terraform but don't maintain, like photos of Chernobyl or abandoned buildings. As we cook dinner a agitated nightjar makes a strange woot woot call that sounds like Sesame Street martians or Zoiberg from Futurama.

Lake Mary Ann
View from camp - post peak oil road, old section of Stuart Hwy

Next day we ride into Renner Springs roadhouse through areas that look like they have been burnt out over winter time. A rocky outcrop that looks like the landscape has a mohawk sticks out on its own in the ashen landscape. The place looks completely different since last I rode here four years ago during winter time; being either burnt out or lush green spring growth, compared to winter dormant. We are seeing plenty of oversized things on the road, guided along their journey by pilot vehicles top and tail. I always get well off the road when I see a pilot vehicle and give the driver the thumbs up to let him/her know I've seen them and intend to stay put; it gives them one less thing to worry about. I think Simon thought this was a little excessive and didn't follow along with my caution. But this day the reason I pull off the road became apparent. An oversize truck was heading towards us when three triple trucks in a convoy were heading the same direction as us. I'd already got well off the road but Simon was dithering near the white line. I motioned for him to get well off the road. The three trucks all drafting each other whooshed past us, driving with wheels our side of the edgeline, and still making us almost drop out bikes in the turbulance. I said "And THAT'S why I always get off when I see the pilot." At Renner Springs we stop for food and drink, and buy sports drinks for later in the day. We lose so much sweat that our shirts start to turn white with salt. We still have a tailwind of sorts, but the day is still brain melty hot. By 3pm we find some shade, and then decide to not move, set up camp. There are these tiny insects that look like forklifts of the insect world trying to move me from my shady rest spot. I refused. The stars were brilliant, as there is no moon to compete at the moment.

We ride into Elliot next morning and eat sandwiches, drink iced coffee, and fill up our water. We buy all the sandwiches in a shop (four) and the guy at the counter jokes "what, are you walking or something?". I reply, no, just on pushbikes, which makes his joke fall flat. As we ride on past the Newcastle waters rest area some idiot grey nomad tries to drives me off the road from behind with their impatience when I have an oncoming vehicle. The incompetent seem to time it such they are passing you EXACTLY as the oncoming vehicle is passing you, leaving minimum space for misjudgements, not enough space for SAFE PASSING and certainly not enough space for my liking. Those who actually CAN DRIVE simply take their foot off the accelerator for 10 WHOLE SECONDS and the situation resolves itself. Mandatory regular retesting has my vote. In the afternoon we find a forest of tall acacias to find shade under, but also notice the property track. After our break, we ride along this for about half an hour, enjoying not having to wear helmets or having to look out for vehicles, until the track gets too sandy and we get back onto the road again. In the late afternoon the road is getting quieter and friendlier. I give a truckie the thumbs up and he honks a tune. When we see the 5km from Dunmarra sign we make camp next to a property track. Whistling kites start whistling from perches high up in gums. A bat flies overhead, curiously circling us, and then heads off for the night. It's not until about 1 hour after sunset that the full intensity of heat finally starts to ebb away. We can no longer stand to sleep in bivvy bags; instead sleeping under the netting of a tent in bare feet and without sleeping bags. It doesn't seem that long ago that we'd be wearing jackets while riding for the first hour of a morning.

We breakfast at Dunmarra roadhouse. We have now crossed the Apostlebird line, with at least 50 of the birds all screeching at us to hand over the food they know bike tourists are withholding. There are a lot of kites also flying about. We fill up our water here. We click over 5000 km for our trip so far. Riding on to Daly Waters Hi-Way Inn, it is scorching hot in the sun by the time we arrive around 10 am. We eat ice blocks and ginger beer. We sit in the shade on the porch and its apparent I'm still suffering the effects of dodgy water from yesterday, so we hang about until I can recover. We eat lunch here, and about 1.30 pm we must get some riding done so we return to the road. I had left my bike in the sun against a tin fence and my bike computer's thermometer reads 62 degrees. My brooks saddle is quite warm. Again we stop around 3 in some rare shade in a burnt out area. A flock of about 50 galahs flies around imitating budgies. Has the nectar already fermented and got them intoxicated? A giant whirly-whirly picks up dust and ash as we cower in the shade. At quarter-past four we force ourselves to get back on the road. We manage to find an old stack site hidden because a fired tree has fallen down on the track into it, in a burnt out area of scrub, but the stack site isn't ash, instead green acacias and something that looks like turkey bush. It is much further off the road than our usual camps so we enjoy the quiet and not having to be so stealth by turning off our torches with every passing car to avoid unwanted company or attention.

Hot days Heading to camp

I've been keeping my eyes peeled for Quandong which should be in fruit around now, but its only the many trees with orange fruit, Quinine tree, that I can find, and I'm not eating that! We are seeing bike tourists going the other direction now, a few a day, as is usual for the Stuart Highway, as many people ride Darwin to Adelaide. We are also seeing the occasional paperbark which means we are no longer in arid! Something else that's visible here is the many agile wallabies. The roadkill ones shrivel up to a leather on the side of the road, with the black markings on their faces remaining, forming grim teethy faces of nightmares. The live ones, however, do a lot of moving about on all fours, if they aren't just lazing about in the shade.

Agile wallaby
Quinine tree, not for eating

The next day we ride into Larrimah's Pink Panther Pub (yes, it's pink) and have a burger and cold drink (only fizz because its like 10 am). The atmosphere is 110% ocker Aussie and you feel like you are an inside a scene from an 90s Australian movie set in the outback. There's blokes in there making misogynistic jokes, and a ballsy lady who sweeps the floors threatening to knock the block off the blokes who say the wrong thing. There are pictures on the walls of giant lizards or snakes that have swallowed large things or crocs attacking outboard motors. Dogs walk around the pub like they own the place, and there are birds in cages everywhere. Yes, the toilets are labeled 'Sheilas' instead of 'Ladies', naturally.

Riding on, we pass by a bushfire, embers still smoking beside the road, and the occasional tree trunk still alight, radiant heat not doing us any favours. I spot a bush banana vine scrambling over a bush, so pick one of the fruit. The outer flesh tastes like fresh green peas; the inner is made up of round flat seeds with white whiskers that aid in dispersal. Much later, after another hot day, at 5pm I decide I've had enough, and pull down a track to camp under the power lines about 11 km out of Mataranka. As the sun starts to drop below the horizon, a flock of birds makes there way through the long grass. As I was laying down amongst the grass, the first thing I thought was a giant reptile was heading for me. Perentie Attack! But no, it was just birds. Anything moving in the long grass here (up to waist height on me) makes a lot of noise and it sounds like something a lot bigger than a tiny bird that it usually is. As we got into the tent, an agile wallaby hopped in the grass, but they are pretty easy to detect with their thumping feet.

Bush banana
Bush banana
Bush banana

As I rode this part of the Stuart four years ago, albeit in winter time, I have this nostalgia of "I camped here" or "this is where I saw the sunset over the floodplain" or "this is where I got 30 thorns in my tyre at once because some bastard ran me off the road into the weeds" or "this is the first time I rode 152 km in one day touring". It's nice but it is also putting into stark contrast how far you can travel when the temperature is ten degrees cooler than now, when I could ride all day without heat stress. Simon's trip was many more years ago so he doesn't remember anything, it seems.

Riding into Mataranka the next day, agile wallabies are everywhere, jumping out in front of you, or taking off quickly from a grassy spot or under a tree, beside the road. We grab a toastie and a drink before riding on. A tawny frogmouth hoots 'oo-ooo' in a tree near the service station. The vegetation is getting decidedly more tropical looking, and there are areas that have been recently burned to add to the 'tidied up Arnhem land' feel to the country here. At lunch time we make it to the beautiful, lush, tropical looking King River and take our shirts off, put them in the cool river water, and put them back on. So cold but so nice. Our shirts dry within minutes. We eat lunch and then dip our shirts in the water again before riding off. In the afternoon we take the turn off to Cutta Cutta caves and wait for the tour guide to return to the office -- not so we can go on a cave tour, but simply to buy an ice cream and drink from his fridge. We wait there until 4.30 pm and ride until we get 10 km from Katherine. We're very close to the out of bounds Tindal RAAF site, but we don't venture past the 'Commonwealth of Australia - Trespassing Prohibited' signs, camping amongst the long grass near the power line maintenance track beside the highway. The stars that night twinkled with the humidity in the air.

King River (Stuart Hwy bridge)
King River (old railway bridge)

In the morning we find the bike track into town, which we enjoy without our sweaty helmets (yay), as in the NT you can ride without a helmet if you are separated from the road. We see a few people riding to work from nearby suburbs along the track. We find a cafe open for breakfast, before heading to a park by the Katherine River to sit in the shade, watching the many whistling kites and other birds, and the massive colony of bats (hundreds) that flew around town around 11 am, as we await a time we can check in and shower to wash 600 km off. 

No comments: