“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!”
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?”
“Did you use a special bike?”
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.