Over­lan­ders tale also ped­dles na­tion­hood

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

Cir­cum­nav­i­gat­ing Aus­tralia by bi­cy­cle sounds like a grand folly, some­thing that could form the ba­sis of one of those amus­ing films about un­likely jour­neys.

But the story hap­pens to be true. Four years be­fore the in­au­gu­ral Tour de France, four cy­clists, widely known as over­lan­ders, em­barked on a race around Aus­tralia.

Bret Har­ris’s Tour de Oz is about their heroic at­tempts to “cir­cum­cy­cle” our vast con­ti­nent. The tim­ing is in­ter­est­ing. This pedal-pow­ered ad­ven­ture took place shortly be­fore the colonies be­came a na­tion in 1901. In one sense it re­flected the am­bi­tion and op­ti­mism of the era.

On Mon­day, June 5, 1899, a wiry, wily re­source­ful bush­man, Arthur Richard­son, was de­ter­mined to be­come the first per­son to pedal around Aus­tralia.

To do so he left Perth, head­ing north. Richard­son, who nei­ther smoked nor drank, had spent time on the West Aus­tralian gold­fields at Cool­gar­die, and also at Kal­go­or­lie, where his dis­tin­guished fa­ther, also Arthur Richard­son, was a doc­tor.

While heavy rain and sandy ter­rain slowed his ini­tial progress, Richard­son pushed on, al­though it re­quired great courage and enor­mous en­durance. Along the way he suf­fered heat­stroke and ex­haus­tion as well as fend­ing off croc­o­dile at­tacks and spear-throw­ing Abo­rig­i­nal war­riors who were — quite ap­pro­pri­ately — re­sist­ing Euro­pean in­tru­sion.

In a bizarre turn, at the same time another party of cy­clists had the same seem­ingly loopy am­bi­tion. New Zealand-born broth­ers Frank and Alex White, and tat­tooed ad­ven­turer and wealthy pas­toral­ist Don­ald Mackay from Wal­lend­been sta­tion in NSW, were at­tempt­ing the ride in a coun­ter­clock­wise di­rec­tion from Mel­bourne and Bris­bane re­spec­tively.

Like Richard­son this trio bat­tled thirst, hunger and ill­ness, as well as un­clear maps and in­ad­e­quate di­rec­tions.

One of the main themes of Har­ris’s en­gag­ing book is ten­sion be­tween the two at­tempts. Would the three­some be able to beat Richard­son in his solo quest? Well, you will have to read the book to find out, and it’s well worth do­ing so.

Fine black-and-white pho­tos sup­ple­ment the fas­ci­nat­ing nar­ra­tive. Two stand out: first, a stu­dio por­trait of Richard­son on his bike, a steely de­ter­mi­na­tion in his eyes; sec­ond, the White broth­ers on their bi­cy­cles in Syd­ney, look­ing as if they are en­joy­ing life in Aus­tralia.

Har­ris is a sea­soned sports jour­nal­ist. He does not pre­tend to be a cy­cling ex­pert but in this en­ter­tain­ing book he fol­lows the ad­vice of Ben­jamin Dis­raeli: “The best way to be­come ac­quainted with a sub­ject is to write about it.” How true is that? While this tale of ad­ven­ture and der­ring-do cen­tres on four main char­ac­ters — Richard­son, the White broth­ers and Mackay — as the book pro­ceeds a fifth emerges: Aus­tralia it­self.

In­deed, while writ­ing about the over­lan­ders and their re­mark­able rides, Har­ris came to re­alise he was also en­gaged in pen­ning “a pro­file of an an­cient, yet young coun­try on the verge of na­tion­hood”.

From the rapidly boom­ing cities of the south­east to the rugged wilder­ness of the north­west, the au­thor felt, and suc­cess­fully com­mu­ni­cates, a grow­ing sense of Aus­tralian­ness as the four cy­clist-ad­ven­tur­ers race each other around the con­ti­nent.

As Har­ris makes clear, the dream of over­land­ing is a re­cur­ring one. Think of all the grey

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