Lakes Entrance was where I planned to take a rest day. It’s a quintessential seaside resort town on the south coast of Victoria that, like its counterparts in the UK, offers a mix of crazy golf courses, static caravan parks, and the tacky nostalgia of a holiday destination that’s heyday was killed off by the cheap air fare. I wanted to find somewhere to put up my tent early and relax for the rest of the day but this plan fell on its arse as soon as I was asked to pay $30 for the privilege of sleeping in my own tent at the cheapest of those caravan parks. As such, before finding someplace free on the edge of town to camp as evening fell, I ended up pushing my fully loaded bike around with my while I did the usual errands that had to be done after a couple of days escaping civilisation: fast food, laundry, and a shower.
It’s always in that order.
With a stomach full of deep fried, battery farmed chicken, I took advantage of one of the many free showers Australia has to offer swimmers (and smelly cyclists), and sat out on the grass to let my clothes dry off while I waited for evening. So I sat in the sun and read, oblivious to the odd looks and wide berth people took to get around me until some kid passing by pointed at me and shouted “Weird!” to no one in particular.
I often forget about our amazing ability as a species to normalise just about anything. Whether it’s cycling across 1200km of empty desert or whether it’s pushing a fully loaded bike that more resembles a tramp’s shopping trolley than a bit of sports equipment, repetition whittles away that self-awareness or meaning of something you do. Over time, I forget what I am doing is not necessarily ‘normal’ to the vast majority of society. In the vast emptiness of outback Australia you’re not necessarily aware of it, thanks to the solitude, but when you return to civilisation that confrontation with society acts as a mirror to yourself. That little kid shouting ‘weird’ reminded me that if you make a Venn diagram and the two circles are labelled ‘cyclist’ and ‘vagabond’, I fit quite well in that bit in the middle.
I ended up staying two nights in Lakes Entrance, camping in some woods in hearing range of waves breaking just the other side of the sand dunes that separate the town from the beach. Before you think this was purely a picturesque scene, you might also want to imagine about a dozen empty bottles of booze littered around my camp. It seems Kids wanting a drink have the same eye for a secluded spot as those wanting to camp for free.
After resting up I stocked up for the road ahead. Two days back in civilisation was enough, and the road I chose would take me back out into the middle of nowhere, though the Snowy National Park and to the foot of Australia’s highest mountain: Kosciusko. For the final time in Australia I would stock up with a couple of days’ worth of food and water and pedalled off through rolling pastoral farmland of semi-circular, green bumps that looked exactly like what you’d get if you asked a kid to draw some hills. At the end of the first few days I’d put my tent up in any unfenced bit of forest and quite a few times pick up the thing and move it somewhere else because I’d just seen a snake. During that time in that remote corner of Victoria I saw more snakes than the rest of my time in Australia combined, and I was never able to react calmly to the fact I was about to ride/step on one of them. Five months later, it seemed I had finally found a part of Oz that had those things we foreigners believed were ubiquitous, deadly, and out to get you.
Eventually, and only after a hell of a lot of frustrating climbing, I passed a range of hills and the scenery teleported me elsewhere. The dirt road, which precariously clung to the cliff face, descended down into the Snowy River valley a few hundred meters below any of the surrounding terrain. There had been a huge bushfire in this valley a few years back and the valley was a mix of the familiar red-orange dust and gumtrees. As I descended the mercury on my thermometer shot up and it felt like I had returned to the outback. With only one way in and out of the valley, it felt just as remote, too, and I was able to enjoy a little bit of solitude before returning to the endless farms that dominate every square inch of Australia south of the Goyder Line. On my first night in the valley I found an empty camping area right next to the crystal clear waters of the river. There was no noise pollution of distant tractor engines or traffic, just the noise of running water and the clucking of cockatoos. I bumped into a Kangaroo and Joey as I came out of the river. We both stopped and briefly stared at each other for a brief moment, somewhat surprised to see one another in such an empty place, and then continued walking in our own directions.
A 700 meter climb would take me out of the valley and towards Jindaybyne. It wouldn’t have been bad but I had made a bit of a miscalculation of the amount of food I would need. Those steep hills had put it on overdrive and the diet of dried mashed potato and tinned tuna just wasn’t enough to be spread over the number of days it took to get through this hilly road. That final climb and ride to the town Jindabyne was smashed out on the power of a sole energy bar I found at the bottom of my bags and hypoglycaemic rage. When I arrived, I snatched the last roasted chicken on the supermarket shelf and consumed it in a way that would make your average farmyard pig appear a master of Victorian table etiquette. I fell into a chicken coma and by the time I felt like moving again it was getting almost dark, so i found some trees on the edge of lake Jindabyne and set up my tent.
A few weeks later I had made it to Sydney. Between inhaling that chicken and the obligatory photo in front of the Opera House not a lot really happened. I cycled, ate, cycled, and camped. I was also hosted by some very lovely people and slept many nights to the soundtrack of breaking waves a fair few more nights. But I’m going to skip to the end because the Snowy River Road was the last bit of interesting riding I did in Australia. Those remote, dry, dusty, but rewarding roads were really the essence of my experience of my time here in Australia. Whether it was the Buntine, Tanami, or Oodnadatta Tracks, these were what captured my imagination of this country and these are what I will be at the forefront of my memory when I look back. As the general theme of the last few posts has suggested, things just quite haven’t been the same whenever I was back riding on the bitumen amongst the farms and towns of civilisation.
By the time I rolled into Sydney, 29,000 kilometres and two and a half years since I left London, the average day of cycling finding somewhere to camp for the night was becoming as extraordinary as going into your office and checking your emails first thing in the morning. As I said earlier, we humans have an outstanding capability to normalise things. Living like a tramp had become normal in the sense that I had no self-awareness (or shame), but this life on the road was becoming less exciting as it once was. My diary clearly showed this: at the beginning of this trip every day took up at least two pages of my journal. Now i’d be lucky to fit a week onto a single page. All that amazing stuff that I’d began this trip to do: cycling some of the most wild and amazing parts of this world, wild camping, the welcome help of kind strangers, had been whittled away by repetition so that my average day of touring, cycling along roads and camping near them, just was another day in the office.
I had cycled to Sydney but I’m not finished yet. But, if I am to continue, something would have to change.
I needed a break. A 24 hour flight undid two and a half years of travel but gave me a month of reunions, catchups, a more than occasional visit to a good British pub.
I also needed a job, and that’s what led me to where I am now, writing this. I’m in a remote outback town working two jobs and watching my account balance slowly rise back up again. That’s just as well because, when I was back in the UK, I may have had a blowout on a bit of new gear. I left my panniers in the UK and returned to Sydney with something very different that will hopefully change a lot about the way I can ride. The lesson I learned from my time in Australia is that I prefer to ride away from busy, paved roads and panniers just don’t let you easily take on the miles of forest tracks and mountain bike trails that exist in the places I’m going to be.
So in a few weeks’ time I’ll be flying to New Zealand with a complete new setup, a bit of cash, and a renewed enthusiasm for life on two wheels.
I can’t bloody wait.