FAREWELL

“Where are you try­ing to get to?” “Mel­bourne.” “And how far did you say you’ve come?” “From Ade­laide.” “It’s a mir­a­cle the bike’s made it this far!”

Say Yes To Adventure - - Features - Romil­lySpiers

STAND­ING IN THE bike store in down­town War­rnam­bool, 700 kilo­me­tres from my start­ing point in Ade­laide and still more than 300 kilo­me­tres from my des­ti­na­tion, my old road bike propped against a post, I could feel my dreams of suc­cess slip­ping away as I an­swered the as­ton­ished bike me­chanic's gruff ques­tions. A bro­ken spoke and a cold dose of re­al­ity was grind­ing my ad­ven­ture to a halt.

“I can fix the wheel, but I doubt you'll get to Mel­bourne. Chances are it'll break again. Prob­a­bly on a de­scent. Lots of traf­fic on the Great Ocean Road too. Es­pe­cially over the week­end. No bike shops ei­ther, not till you reach the other end…”

An hour ear­lier I'd been on the side of the high­way, 70 kilo­me­tres from civil­i­sa­tion, star­ing at the rem­nants of my rear wheel; a par­tic­u­larly nasty en­counter with what I'm sure was no more than a dried gum leaf, leav­ing me stranded.

The me­chanic's warn­ing con­jured vivid images in my mind – a steep de­scent, a heav­ily laden bike pick­ing up speed, fu­tile at­tempts to brake, wheels dis­in­te­grat­ing, a body (mine) fly­ing over the han­dle­bars and into the path of an on­com­ing sedan packed with tourists, screech­ing brakes, cries of hor­ror, tears, blood, bro­ken bones and an em­bar­rass­ing scat­ter­ing of un­der­pants and chamois cream.

With the bike store back in fo­cus, I grasped for one small rem­nant of the dream, “Reckon I could make it to the Twelve Apos­tles?”

At­tempt­ing a long-dis­tance bike ride had been on my mind for some time. With an over­seas move im­mi­nent, it seemed the per­fect chance to get to know my coun­try a lit­tle bet­ter be­fore leav­ing it; per­haps even an op­por­tu­nity to feel like I did be­long there – some­thing I strug­gled with hav­ing grown up in the city, far re­moved from the vast and re­put­edly hos­tile out­back. Re­search for my trip be­gan, as so many of my ad­ven­tures do, safely en­sconced in my kitchen, typ­ing ran­dom but rel­e­vant phrases into Google. ‘Long dis­tance bike ride, Aus­tralia', ‘ What should I have for din­ner?', ‘Overnight rides, Aus­tralia', ‘Should I buy a guinea pig?'. The list goes on. There were so many choices – rail trails, coastal tracks, alpine ways. And then I hit gold. A de­tailed blog by a keen cy­clist who had rid­den from Ade­laide to Mel­bourne via the Great Ocean Road.

I had trav­elled the Great Ocean Road, one of Aus­tralia's pop­u­lar tourist des­ti­na­tions, many times and of­ten com­pleted the route feel­ing frus­trated. The nar­row road, cling­ing to the cliffs of the Vic­to­rian south coast, is epic and the scenery breath­tak­ing. But, at 243 kilo­me­tres long, it lends it­self to car travel, which means ne­go­ti­at­ing hair­pin bends and moun­tain­ous ter­rain while jammed into a long queue of fel­low sight­seers. With lim­ited view­ing points, you could eas­ily find your­self driv­ing the full length with­out see­ing any­thing ex­cept an oc­ca­sional teas­ing flash of ocean blue. Cy­cling would mean trav­el­ling slowly, drink­ing in the sights and ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the ups and downs of the land­scape.

As I planned my route and, in the

in­ter­est of keep­ing things af­ford­able, found my bush camps, ex­cite­ment grew, and I be­gan to tell friends and fam­ily my plan. Im­me­di­ately doubts were voiced. “Who are you go­ing with?”, be­came a frus­trat­ingly repet­i­tive ques­tion. Was it a con­cern for my grow­ing loner ten­den­cies, be­cause they couldn't fathom trav­el­ling solo, or sim­ply be­cause I was a girl and it was deemed ‘not safe' with­out a man or at least a gag­gle of fe­male friends? I pushed on re­gard­less, and it was a con­ver­sa­tion with a fel­low bike tourer that fi­nally sealed the deal for me.

“Did you train be­fore­hand?”

“Nup.”

“Did you use a spe­cial bike?”

“Nup”.

With my trusty 12-speed road bike, circa 1975, by my side, I was set.

Be­fore the trip, I wrote list after list of the be­long­ings I would need. The rewrit­ing, re­vis­ing and re­fin­ing was en­ter­tain­ing and, said a lit­tle in­ner voice con­vinc­ingly, “a men­tal form of prepa­ra­tion just as im­por­tant as any­thing more phys­i­cal.” So, by the time it came to pack my bi­cy­cle, I was con­fi­dent that I would be tak­ing only essen­tials and my ‘nat­u­ral fit­ness' would prob­a­bly see me through. Un­for­tu­nately, de­spite care­ful weigh­ing of each ‘essen­tial' on the bath­room scales, my fully loaded bike proved mon­strously heavy. A quick spin around the block was re­as­sur­ing – it was evenly weighted and, once mov­ing, wasn't that hard to ped­dle, es­pe­cially if the road was flat.

The first day of my trip, de­spite good in­ten­tions, saw me set­ting off in the midst of Ade­laide's morn­ing peak hour. All those bored com­muters stuck in the daily grind and there I was, at the start of an ad­ven­ture. I zoomed past packed buses feel­ing the free­dom; I bumped over train tracks mar­vel­ling at my ro­bust setup, even manag­ing to stop at traf­fic lights, cre­at­ing amuse­ment amongst the monotony as I halted with a se­vere wob­ble. This was great. I was con­fi­dent. I was eu­phoric.

It wasn't long be­fore my eu­pho­ria was dis­si­pated. Just out­side Ade­laide's city lim­its lie the un­avoid­able Ade­laide Hills. Of course, ‘hill' evokes images of gen­tle slopes but Ade­laide's ‘hills' are 700 me­tres of truly tor­tur­ous as­cent. OK, re­gard­ing alti­tude, they don't rate on a global scale, in truth they don't even rate on a na­tional scale, but on a bi­cy­cle with a dread­fully in­suf­fi­cient gear range and highly in­com­pe­tent leg mus­cles, it felt akin to scal­ing the Hi­malayas. One hour in and I re­alised what a poor ex­cuse of a bike tourer I was, my in­ep­ti­tude made only clearer by a pelo­ton of sprightly, ly­cra-clad re­tirees on sleek road bikes, tak­ing it in turns to streak past with gen­tle clicks of mod­ern de­railleurs and a cheery, “Howdy!” As the hills car­ried on end­lessly, my essen­tials started to feel night­mar­ishly like hun­dreds of ki­los of lux­u­ries try­ing to pull me back­wards. “Do I need the tent?” “Is a sleep­ing mat nec­es­sary?” “Is ditching the spare in­ner tube tempt­ing fate?” It was in these low mo­ments that Google maps, my cho­sen (read ‘free') route plan­ner, de­cided to play one of its cruel tricks. “Turn left”, it con­fi­dently claimed. Left? Left would mean leav­ing

the paved road and bump­ing down an unimag­in­ably steep track. Left would mean one hell of a re­trace should it be wrong. But, if cor­rect, the fol­low­ing left would be a short­cut. Scep­ti­cally, I turned left. Forty-five min­utes later, sweat­ing and aching, I found my­self re­vis­it­ing the site of Google's out­landish claim, the promised left turn lead­ing to noth­ing more than a rusty gate into an over­grown field.

Hours later I col­lapsed into my first camp­site. Seventy kilo­me­tres from my start­ing point, the Ade­laide Hills con­quered, and a full day of rid­ing on the flat ahead of me, I was tired but happy. With the af­ter­noon sun stream­ing through glis­ten­ing gum leaves, there was noth­ing to do ex­cept cook a carb-rich din­ner and curl up in my essen­tial tent on my essen­tial sleep­ing mat and call it a night.

Over the next week, as cars, camper­vans and trucks ca­reened by, I slowly crept to­wards the Great Ocean Road. I ne­go­ti­ated car fer­ries and rough roads. I was a point of in­ter­est for be­mused cows, of which en­tire herds would look up and stare. I be­friended con­voys of grey no­mads also at­tracted by the free camp­sites but avoid­ing the in­con­ve­nience of lim­ited ameni­ties by truck­ing in their own. I be­came a con­vert to padded, spongy bike shorts and, after bat­tling rag­ing head­winds, I be­came an ex­pert on beat­ing the weather. My days started pre-dawn, break­ing camp by the light of a torch and hit­ting the road while the sun rose, the air still and the shad­ows long, and they ended in the early af­ter­noon, tent pitched, tea brew­ing, with noth­ing more than the quiet tick­ing of the warm bush to in­ter­rupt my thoughts.

Of course, it wasn't all plain sail­ing. I con­tin­ued to be way­laid by routeplan­ner mis­di­rec­tions; the wind was dif­fi­cult, the heat was in­tense, and the traf­fic, es­pe­cially the heav­ily laden log trucks, was ter­ri­fy­ing. At times, when par­tic­u­larly fa­tigued, my bike ride felt less an ad­ven­ture and more a poorly ex­e­cuted form of self-in­flicted tor­ture. Then, eight days and 550 kilo­me­tres from Ade­laide, I came to a mile­stone. De­noted by a patch of gravel and an un­der­whelm­ing sign, the South Aus­tralian-Vic­to­rian bor­der. There was lit­tle in­cen­tive to pull over, how­ever hav­ing reached this point by legs alone, it was a mo­ment to cel­e­brate. Plus,

I had a South Aus­tralian ap­ple that wasn't al­lowed across the bor­der with me. As I munched my il­licit fruit, I read the ne­glected info panel. Ti­tled ‘ The Sur­vey of the South Aus­tralian – Vic­to­rian Bor­der', it didn't im­me­di­ately spark in­ter­est but amongst the faded facts and fig­ures was a sorry tale that shifted my per­spec­tive. I may have found it hard, with curses yelled, and doubts voiced, to reach this point but un­like those first sur­vey­ors I hadn't once been forced to drink horse blood to sur­vive. Nor had I been beaten back by in­hos­pitable climes, I hadn't failed three times and, un­less very

un­for­tu­nate, it was un­likely to claim my life. I was also con­fi­dent that years down the line, it wouldn't come to light that I'd got­ten it all wrong by a mere 3.6 kilo­me­tres.

By day ten I was pro­ceed­ing briskly along the A1 high­way, and the Great Ocean Road was feel­ing tan­ta­lis­ingly close. With my thoughts drift­ing I barely glimpsed the gum leaf shaped ob­ject that brought me to a stand­still. A slight bump, an au­di­ble hiss and sud­denly my rear tyre was flat. For­tu­nately, de­spite my pain-ad­dled thoughts in the Ade­laide Hills, I had hung onto the, now essen­tial, spare in­ner tube. I be­gan to as­sess the sit­u­a­tion, des­per­ately hop­ing I could re­mem­ber how to ne­go­ti­ate my bike's an­cient me­chan­ics and re­move not only the rear wheel but also reat­tach it. Within mo­ments though I re­alised a spoke had bro­ken and the struc­ture of the wheel was com­pro­mised, leav­ing me in a far stick­ier predica­ment.

Stuck on the side of the road, in the mid­dle of nowhere, with my only hope of res­cue a stranger in a car, was a sit­u­a­tion I never imag­ined

I'd ex­pe­ri­ence. That, how­ever, was ex­actly my po­si­tion. I was in need of a bloke in a ute, a no­tion which, un­for­tu­nately, as a woman alone, I found vaguely alarm­ing. “Why are you trav­el­ling solo?,” my con­science groaned repet­i­tively. How­ever, with a huge four-wheel drive bear­ing down on me, tech­ni­cally the per­fect can­di­date, there was lit­tle else to do ex­cept stick out my thumb. I sud­denly saw the car's blinker turn on, and my heart started to pound ner­vously. With my thumb a clear in­di­ca­tion of “Help, I'm stranded,” there was no go­ing back. The car pulled up be­side me, and a large, mus­cu­lar man jumped out.

“G'day, I'm Jack.”

The train from War­rnam­bool sta­tion quickly gath­ered speed. Out­side my win­dow a dis­tance that should have taken days to cover passed in a blur, too fast to pick de­tail. From in­side the drab train, all the land­scape's sub­tlety was flat­tened, and I felt barely a jolt as we raced to­ward Mel­bourne. Post break down, I hadn't given up im­me­di­ately. I man­aged to ride a small sec­tion of the Great Ocean Road, mak­ing it to the Twelve Apos­tles, a route high­light. How­ever, with steep ter­rain ahead, an un­pre­dictable bi­cy­cle and a con­stant stream of dis­tracted tourists, com­mon sense kicked in. De­spite this, as I sat on the train with noth­ing to dis­tract me, I felt an over­whelm­ing sense of dis­ap­point­ment. I had failed. Lit­tle voices of doubt nig­gled at me. Had I given up too eas­ily? Should I have tried harder, done bet­ter? Was it all just a waste of time?

Now, across the world, I think back on my trip and re­alise that, upon re­flec­tion, it was far from a fail­ure. I rode 800 kilo­me­tres in 12 days, unas­sisted, on a vin­tage road bike. I camped in the bush, I be­friended kind strangers, I vis­ited un­known places, and I pushed my­self harder than ever be­fore. Though thou­sands of kilo­me­tres away, with grey skies, low tem­per­a­tures and mist rolling past my win­dow, I can shut my eyes and think back over my ad­ven­ture, re­call­ing the feel of the warm wind on my face, the smell of the eu­ca­lypt-per­fumed air, the sounds of the hot bush min­gling with the rat­tle of my bi­cy­cle and the sight of the shim­mer­ing, in­fi­nite hori­zon. I didn't ride from Ade­laide to Mel­bourne via the Great Ocean Road, but I did get to know my coun­try a lit­tle bit bet­ter, and I did it all on my own.

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