There’s a stretch of smooth Bitumen that runs through the middle of Australia, from Darwin to Adelaide, that’s called the Stuart Highway. If you’re travelling up or down the Northern Territory, theres a high chance, if not an inevitably, that you’ll end up on this road. Everyone does at some point.
And that, after a few days of riding on this road from Darwin to Katherine, was what was annoying me. After living in a country of 1.7 billion people for a year, and then spending the first half of 2017 in chaotic South East Asia, I came to Australia with the sole intention of escaping people. The Stuart Highway’s traffic wasn’t what I was looking for and I found myself putting my headphones in and zoning out form my surroundings, save for the paranoid glance for road trains in my mirror every ten seconds. I had been told by cyclists travelling North that the traffic would quieten down after Katherine, but it still failed to address my other problem, something that had been lacking ever since I rolled down from the giddy heights of the Tibetan Plateau last year: the elusive sense of adventure.
South East Asia had been easy and largely spent in cheap hotels with showers, wifi, and a short walk to cheap street food. Japan had just been overwhelmingly nice, what with the ability to end a day’s ride in a hot spring almost on a daily basis. Call it masochism, call it an odd desire for poor hygiene standards; either way I wanted to feel like I was having an adventure again, to escape convenience, people, and smooth asphalt roads.
In Katherine I enjoyed the hospitality of Mat, who I met on the side of the road in the Litchfield National Park and who had invited me to make the most of the spare beds in the accommodation his company had set him up with. After a few hours sipping beers by his poolside room, we went to his colleague’s house for dinner, where I shamed myself with my appetite built up by several days of the tinned tuna and spaghetti diet.
During this dinner we came to the discussion of where I was going next; I’d done a bit of planning to escape the Stuart Highway and told him what I had in mind. He used to work for the highways agency and had driven the road I had in mind a few times and, warned me:
“Theres bugger all on the Buntine but cows and dirt”.
Perfect, I thought.
After a final bit of research and resupply I left the Stuart Highway and headed West. Quite a long way west – into Western Australia, in fact – pedalling down quieter and quieter roads that eventually gave up being paved altogether through landscapes I had entirely to myself. This was the Buntine Highway and as soon as my tyres hit the dirt something clicked and, after 6 months of feeling that something wasn’t quite right, I finally felt that where I was and what I was doing was exactly what I wanted.
Over the next couple of days I had a perfectly smooth dirt road, largely to myself, through stunning scenery (and indeed past many cows). That elusive sense of adventure had been lurking a few days’ ride beyond the middle of nowhere and I finally pedalled out to find it.
Occasionally, just three or four times a day, someone would pass some odd guy on a bike, covered in dirt, with a stupid grin on his face and stop to ask what on earth he was doing here. But these interruptions to complete solitude were were always welcome, life affirming encounters.
There were the ‘grey nomads’ with their caravans. They’d wave as they passed but I’d see them five minutes later, pulled to the side of the road with the kettle on and the door open waiting for me to join them.
There were the foul mouthed yet big hearted cattle station hands. Calling me “a mad cu*t” and making sure I’d have enough water. They didn’t give up after I told them I was fine by asking the best follow up question I have ever heard:
“What about beer?”
I stopped pedalling at this point.
The list of trail angels could go on for a while but I’ll stop with the guy in the Ute who found my camera tripod, that had fallen from my bike a few days back, and handed it back to me.
There aren’t a lot of people on the Buntine but there’s lot of humanity.
And cows, a lot of cows, too.
I guess that guy was right.