“I’m going to have another one.”
It was a simple phrase, an announcement of intent, but it was also a statement of celebration akin to ‘it’s finally over’.
Somewhere near the small town of Hawker we had passed Goyder’s Line, an invisible boundary that stretches across the Southern half of Australia that brings about it a change more profound than any national border crossing. North of this line, euphemistically noted by Goyder to be “liable of drought”, crops don’t grow and the distance between settlements is measured in the required number of day’s cycling through a very dusty expanse of nothing. As we crossed this line, the dust vanished and the red tint the land had since Darwin was replaced by rolling hills of lush green grass or bright yellow canola. I looked at the map; the road ahead was no longer a single, straight line as it had been for the last two months but spread out into a web of interconnecting towns that would take just a few hours to reach.
These towns had bakeries. These bakeries introduced me to the culinary heaven-in-pastry that is the Aussie meat pie, that became embedded into our daily routines as second breakfast.
And more often than not, during these second breakfasts, we would get second servings.
Because we could.
Because things no longer had to be trucked in from hundreds of miles away and were therefore, for the first time, not extortionately expensive. Because we no longer had to carry multiple day’s worth of water or food, as there would be another town a few hours away that would probably also boast an award-winning bakery. Because, for the first time in two months, the prospect of stopping mid-morning in a town that had drinkable running water and freshly baked goods was real and not a wistful daydream when I’d find myself sitting on the red dirt or in some dried up creek bed north of the Goyder Line.
Because the outback was over.
Crossing that line we had entered civilisation and life on the road suddenly became a lot more normal and familiar. The ingredients for an evening’s meal could be purchased the same day rather than a week in advance and, as a result, got a bit more imaginative than instant mashed potato and tinned tuna. Mushrooms in a creamy pasta sauce have never, ever, tasted so decadently luxurious.
At the same time, as the land suddenly became useful, it suddenly became very much someone’s property and fenced off from the road. This turned the daily task of finding a place to camp into a simple manoeuvre of the bike off the road a couple of meters into a game of hide-and-seek with society. Stealth camping was once again necessary, something I hadn’t needed to do in a long time.
Coming out of the outback I also thought that maybe I had gotten away with it, that I had escaped the plethora of things with too many legs (and not enough) that I assumed were waiting for me to bite, sting, poison, or just downright swallow me whole. Out of the last two months, there had been absolute bugger all. I had arrived at the conclusion that all those worries hadn’t been unfounded, just aimed incorrectly. It’s not the fauna, but the flora that’s you have to worry about. If i remember my science lessons correctly, most plants that have done well in the survival of the fittest have done so by providing some sort of incentive to animals to help them reproduce, whether it’s a fruit, some sweet smelling pollen or some other nice thing. Of course, this is Australia and even if the all the animals that want to kill you cannot be found then the fauna are going to work twice as hard to ruin your day. Instead of some nice incentive, Aussie plants spread their seeds by stabbing you and your equipment. Their weapons are a set of thorns, spikes, and other nasty looking things that look like the weapons cache of a ninja. Three-eyed-jacks and goatheads are just some of the things that litter the floor waiting for you to roll your tyres over, sit down on, or put your inflatable sleeping mat on top of.
Thank god for padded cycling shorts.
We were in the Clare Valley, and were camping in the garden and warm hospitality of Troy and his family, when I realised that I was hugely mistaken to feel complacent. Troy had seen my unattended bike by the road and stopped his car out of interest to see who on earth loaded up a bike that way (Kendon had ben clever and hidden his bike off the road). We were looking for a place to camp on the wrong side of a gap in a fence as a ute sped down the road past my bike and abruptly stopped. Presumably because we were on land we weren’t and were was about to be a given a right bollocking. Instead, just a few hours later we were in Troy’s house, eating dinner with his family and being treated to a tour of the Clare Valley’s vineyards from the comfort of his dining room table (and the discomfort of a headache the following morning).
On our second night camping at Troy’s, as I went to get into my tent, I screamed in a pitch my Y chromosomes would probably be embarrassed of and stumbled a few feet away from my tent door that seemed to be hosting a spider that, to me, looked like the the size of my hand. Kendon shortly came over to see what was all the fuss was about and with the grace and casualness of Steve Irwin flicked the spider off my tent with his foot.
“Kill it! Kill it!” was my panicked demand, and he somewhat reluctantly obliged with heel of his shoe.
Unfortunately I couldn’t find the body and after and refused to get in my tent; instead I poked around the outside, lifting up a piece of gear immediately before hastily retreating back to a safe distance from any zombie spider. After each lap around my tent I repeatedly asked Kendon, who at this stage had returned to his tent and his hot chocolate, if he definitely did kill it.
“Nick,” He eventually replied to the fifth time I asked in the stern tone of a fed-up parent, “Go to bed.”
I’m certainly not proud of my reaction to the oversized arachnids Australia boasts but the reaction I had, that of mortal fear quickly followed by bloodlust and violent intent, was a reaction pretty standard of us humans, I think. The next day I was told that it was probably a wolf spider, not one of those things that could kill you. There’s only two spiders that can really kill you and Aussies have a very nonchalant attitude towards these. My hosts in Adelaide were surprised that they couldn’t show me any redbacks in their garden, for instance. I guess they’ve been brought up to accept that they are all around whereas I’ve come from a country in which my ancestors made sure any animal that was a threat was wiped out many generations ago.
A few days of riding from Adelaide brought me back to the sea, the reunion also coincided with one of my favourite camp spots in the whole of Australian mainland, mainly because it was so different to any other bush camp I had enjoyed over the last two months of cycling across this country. The red dust had been left behind and, just short of a week before I arrived in Melbourne, I was putting up my tent to the soundtrack of waves breaking on the cliff faces that stood just twenty meters away. I had made it to the other side of the Australian Continent and onto the Great Ocean Road, a tourist-filled winding stretch of bitumen that often clings to the rugged rocky coastline battered by the Southern Ocean that was a far cry to the tropical beaches in the Northern Territory and a far cry form the empty roads I had cycled on every day down the middle. I had near misses with cars driven by people from a certain country I have had a tumultuous relationship with over the last few years and had to elbow my way in to catch a glimpse of the Twelve Apostles.
But overall, I have to admit, it was glorious. Stunning, yes, but busy.
Plenty of pies, plenty of flat whites, plenty of epic scenery, and plenty of people.
The Great Ocean Road was like a victory lap, saving some of the most in-your-face epic scenery for the last couple of hundred kilometres of my ride across Australia. But it was a victory lap I had to share with some of the 6.6 billion other people that live on this planet I was able to forget about during my ride down the middle of this giant, dry rock.
And, as always with those empty, hot, and barren places that are difficult at the time, you look back form the comfort and mundanity of bustling civilisation, from the land of plenty, and yearn to return.