After another fleeting lapse of concentration, I once again fell flat on my face. What I thought was a bit of road that wasn’t horrendously corrugated turned out to be a sandpit. My front wheel disappeared into the sand before it veered off in a direction perpendicular to the way wheels should move, toppling bike, rider, twenty five litres of water, and two weeks worth of tuna and instant mashed potato into the corrugated road I was supposed to be avoiding.
The bad road and falling onto it was difficult, but picking up the bike and pushing it out of the sand with all the supplies I needed to last me the 1000km dirt road from Halls Creek to Alice Springs was the thing that really made me swear like an Australian and, as the headwind blew relentlessly during those fist few days crossing the Tanami Desert, I really wondered what on earth am I doing on a bloody pushbike here…wherever here actually was. I felt like I had passed the middle of nowhere a long time ago.
Take a look at a map of this big orange lump of rock that sticks out of the Indian Ocean and you’ll see a lot of blank spaces criss crossed by small dirt roads. On the bit where I was crossing, along the Tanami Road, there is apparently so little there that the cartographers had enough space to slap a big warning paragraph that read something like “Extremely isolated area. Bring enough water and food to feed a small army. Oh, and if you are foolish enough to cycle it, bring a profanity thesaurus because ‘f**king sand’ gets boring quickly (a speed you won’t be going, old mate).”
Back in Halls Creek I had that feeling of trepidation and excitement at what I was about to do: a feeling you get at the beginning of something that you know will be great to look back upon while at the time you know you’ll be hating life. The Tanami Road seemed to have a bit of a reputation, too, given the responses of people I told my plans to. I was either met with complementary pat on the shoulder and an almost sympathetic “good on you” as if I, pulling a Captain Oates, had just told them that I am just going outside and may be some time. Others simply took an authoritative posture with their hands by their suddenly straightened back and barraged me with rhetorical questions like “you do know that there’s nothing out there?” or “you do know that Rabit Flat roadhouse is closed?”.
It had been closed since 2010; I wanted to tell them that word travels faster than a grey nomad.
Instead I’d just nod and assure them of my research and preparedness. This satisfied most people who asked but there was one gut who simple tutted and sighed,
“Just what we need: another dead Pom in the bush”.
Apparently he didn’t quite seem convinced by my assurances that it would be possible and apparently I didn’t quite hold back the urge to call him a git under my breath as he wondered off to look down his nose at something else in the campsite.
After I wobbled out of Halls Creek on the heaviest bike I have ever ridden, a smooth 20km of bitumen road took me to the beginning of the Tanami Road and as soon as I rolled onto the dirt it immediately told me it was going to be a long hard slog. The road surface was a binary of corrugated road – that makes you wince every time you hit a bump, knowing your spokes probably hate you as much as your backside does for choosing this route – and the aforementioned sand that, after it throws you off the bike, requires a lot of pushing and swearing until you find a a patch of road that’s a little more stable. Throw in a relentless headwind and that’s pretty much how I spent the first four days on the Tanami.
But respite came each night. As I found a spot to camp and cooked dinner, the wind would subside and the setting sun would turn this apparent nothingness into a thing of utmost beauty, basked in complete silence, that I had all to myself. With the calm silence and this golden light came a sort of amnesia. I’d forget about the fury of the day; all was forgiven until tomorrow, where the whole process would repeat itself.
By the fourth day of this, however, I was in a foul mood and often only kept going thanks to on to the morale boost from people in passing cars, who’d offer some snacks or an ice cold drink. That morning I was messing around with my water bladders, trying to find the source of a leak when I heard an engine slow down behind me, followed by a shout:
“We’re gonna have a cook-off!”
It was Shane, a road train driver I chatted to the day before who had mentioned he had a couple of steaks in his cab he’d be happy to share when he passed me on his way back from his delivery. I didn’t see him again that day and abandoned the hope of red meat. But here he was and, true to his word, he produced a stove, some potatoes, and two steaks, each the size of my face.
It may have been the best steak in my life. I’m sure I’ve had better quality cuts in the past but when it comes to meals you’ll remember for a long time, sometimes it’s all about context: an unexpected slab of red meat in the middle of a desert, eaten off the trailer of a road train after several days of tinned tuna will be tough to beat.
Shane worked 12 days on and had 2 off, living in the truck while delivering fuel to the most remote settlements throughout the Northern Territory and Western Australia. “It’s my home” he said, pointing to the cab. Given the beauty of some of these places he gets to drive and camp, I can see why he had done the job for 30 years and still loved it.
On that fourth day, after that meaty second breakfast, it all changed. The road suddenly improved, the wind that had been howling for the last 4 days dropped. Without the worry that i’d either break a spoke or fall flat on my face, I could for the first time take my eyes off the road and, for the first time in days, I looked up.
The next eight days passed in a blur. There’s not too much to say about pedalling seven hours a day to make the distances between water supplies because I rarely had much energy to do anything else. The road was mostly fine and along the vast distances – alone and through nothing – I just zoned out enjoyed the solitude and let my mind wander while barely noticing me legs were pedalling: cycling zen. I pedalled and pedalled and pedalled and eventually the dirt road ended, the McDonnell Ranges came into view, and I returned to the Stuart Highway, the road I turned off three weeks earlier to do something more interesting.
I had certainly been that.
The Tanami had been long. It had been a physical and mental challenge and it had also been a lesson in patience. More than anything else, however, cycling across a desert gives you perspective. There’s the perspective of distance: any map can tell you Australia is big is but a bicycle makes you feel it. On the Tanami, when you look at the map after a long day’s ride and you see the tiny dent of progress you’ve made, it feels as if choosing a bicycle to cross Australia is like being told to break Sisyphus’ boulder in half with a dentist’s drill. You feel every hill, bump, sand, and kilometre.
Then there’s the appreciation of stopping, the treat of it being over and spending a few days relaxing in Alice Springs with amazing people who have a coffee machine and take you out mountain biking after a day lazing around by their pool.
But most of all, there’s perspective found in what all those maps depict as just a blank space with a warning sign. You no longer see a blank space on a map because you know there’s the unexpected beauty that reveals itself twice a day; onto that blank space you imprint one’s own memory from experience; and, most of all, upon that blank space goes your own sense of achievement.
You turn nothing into something.