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Cycling Australia’s Nullabor desert

You wouldn’t think that much could go wrong whilst cycling across one of Australia’s longest stretch of road, but my friend Andy and I had more drama than your standard Friday night episode of Eastenders I can tell you.

We set out from Esperance, Western Australia and headed north to the old gold mining town of Norsman where we were to start our crossing of the Nullarbor Plain.  These were a tough couple of days given it was basically a 200km gradual uphill climb and by the time we got to Norsman our legs sure knew about it.  And it was hot.  35 degrees plus.  As Andy put it, the sun beat down on us harder than police batons on anti-capitalist demonstrators at a G-8 summit in Geneva.  And there was no relief in sight in terms of where we were going – The Nullarbor Plain. 

Philip Martins Photography c 2005

A 1,300km, one road highway of pretty much nothing except for tumbleweed, dust, heat and flies and the rotting smell of kangaroo road kill every three metres or so.  Needless to say, I did ask myself several hundred times what the hell I was doing out here?  I guess the only way to describe it or to experience it if you wish to do so is to take your standard exercise bike and place it in a sauna.  Go out and catch a couple of thousand blowflies and turn them loose in the sauna.  Then turn the exercise bike on the hardest setting (for headwind factor) and cycle for 6 hours a day straight for 15 days whilst being forced to watch re-runs of the Eurovision Song Contest in Estonian!

With one stop roadhouses only appearing every 200km or so, it meant a bit of bush camping was in order.  Generally this is no problem, except for on the first night when you’re pounced upon by a mini tornado/dust storm at 7pm, which of course is what happened to us.  I noted in my diary that it felt like we were being swallowed by a hurricane as the noise and force of the winds were so strong and it wasn’t until a few days later that I read that Perth and other areas of Western Australia had in fact been hit by several tornadoes that day so I wasn’t far off the mark really.  It was all rather exciting to tell you the truth being holed-up in your tent, holding on for your life, whilst outside winds in excess of 175kpm whizzed past you in a frenzy.   

The following day bought even more drama with my rear tyre blowing out spokes.  Feeling very frustrated I was able to make it to the Balladonia roadhouse and call the bike shop in Perth and demand that they build me a new back tyre and get it to me ASAP with proper touring spokes.   To their credit they did this and the next day I had a new back tyre and I was on my way again.  And a good thing, because the next two days were two of the toughest.  We had come upon the 90 Mile Straight -Australia’s longest straightest road.  146.6km of endless horizon and absolutely nothing in between.  And to add insult to psychological injury, full on head winds to go with it, which meant we were almost going backwards, or least it felt like it at times.  There’s absolutely no protection from the winds out there.  Its either on your tail or in your face and for the 15 day crossing we only had 2 tail wind days.  It was so unfair, not to mention demoralising.  On and on and on the road went, straight as an arrow, and just before you lost your last marble and it was too late to recover what ever was left of your sanity, you see up in the distance a load of bikini clad female Swedish backpackers all drinking vodka and having a party in what appears to be a swimming pool converted into a bus…no hang on minute, that was just a mirage.  No, it was just the next stop, the Caiguna Roadhouse which as you would imagine is a massive let down from the Swedish backpacker’s scenario but it did have a fridge with cold drinks in it so I wasn’t too disappointed.

Philip Martins Photography c 2005

For the next couple of days we had a change of luck and got our two days of tail winds and were able to motor along without hindrance.  And it felt good too – The way cycling was meant to be, doing 30kph as apposed to a mega 12kph.  One day we did 155km which was superb and it actually was enjoyable for a while.  On the same day a Belgian guy passed us on his bike who ended up doing 300km that day.  This guy had just rode 6,000km around New Zealand, then from Cairns to Brisbane and then Darwin down to Perth and was heading up to Sydney for Christmas.  I put all that at about 20,000km in a year.  Was that guy insane or what?  So we aptly named him the ‘Barnstorming Belgian’ and no sooner had he come up upon us, he was gone in a flash like a phantom.  And I thought I was doing well!

So after 40 days since leaving Perth, it was time to say adios to Western Australia and G’day to South Australia.  But it wasn’t the welcome I was looking for unfortunately.

Philip Martins Photography c 2005

25km over the state border I blew out my back tyre.  At first it looked as though it was just a puncture but on closer inspection the tyre itself was a goner.  Very frustrating and disappointing to say the least. So without a spare and with the next roadhouse over a 100km away, the only thing to do was to stick out the thumb and hitch a lift. Cars were few and far between that day.  Some caravan drivers stopped but claimed to have no room for the bike and me.  What a joke that was?  These people lug around dilapidated old caravans the size of football fields and say they don’t have any room.  Some of them even just kept on driving.  They really are a funny breed the caravan drivers and come to think of it, its little wonder any of them had room for me because they literally do carry around everything but the kitchen sink. One things for sure, if your ever in a jam and need something that not even your nearest hardware store or Harvey Norman’s or Dixons can get you, go and hunt down a caravan driver because chances are he’ll have it!  If you asked him for a jigsaw puzzle of Kazakhstan he would have one I reckon or at the very best know some other bloke who did! They’re unreal.

Anyhow, after waiting patiently for about an hour I finally flag down a driver willing to fit me in.  And what do you know, he didn’t drive a caravan but just your plain old Ford Falcon. 

So after loading up the car and hitting the road, it didn’t take long to realize that this was going to be no ordinary ride. John, the driver, was from Victoria.  He had more drugs in the car than your local pharmacist and enough dirty magazines on the backseat to rival your local newsagent.  This was going to be interesting one way or another.  In fact
it was a miracle that we got my gear into his car at all as he had so much rubbish in it, it was like riding in a four-wheeled skip!  I was locked into a ride from hell and there was no turning back.  If you’ve ever seen the scene out of ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’ where Johnny Depp and Benecio Del Toro pick up the hitchhiker, well that’s pretty much how it was except I’m not sure if my John was seeing flying bats, more likely flying kangaroos! So not long into the short journey, he gives me his life’s resume.  At 18 he had been done for careless and reckless driving.  At 22 he claims to have caused A$10,000 damage to his A$32,000 brand new car by jumping up and down on the roof and kicking in the panels after a night of drinking a bottle of Wild Turkey.  I quickly surveyed the rubbish at my feet to make sure there were no empty bottles of the stuff floating around.  Lucky for me there wasn’t.  And most recently, had just robbed his best mates house as a payback for his best mate knocking over his joint a few weeks earlier.  What are friends for I thought?  So what does he do after all that you ask?  Well, he skips town to avoid the cops, takes time off from his job at the local meat-works factory and drives to Perth in one hit to meet up with three people he had met over the internet four years ago, but gets there and blows A$1,000 in a week only to have to turn around and drive back again.  And that’s where I come into it!  He enthusiastically re-lived with me several other of his life’s achievements with me but after him telling me the one about him recently breaking up with his girlfriend after he found out she had been having several ménage a trios without consulting or even inviting him, I had pretty much tuned out and was more intent on locating his stash of valium amongst the other consortium of drugs scattered about so I could knock myself out for the rest of the short trip and put myself out of this misery.  I certainly know how to pick my good samaritans I thought as we hurtled down the highway at over 140kph.  This was great.  I now was not only in a virtual flying skip but it appeared to be driven by a psychotic Michael Schumacher-wannabe on speed!  After a short 45 minutes which felt like a good 3 hours it finally all came to a screeching halt as we made the Nullarbor Roadhouse and after having to almost surgically remove my fingernails from the dash, I was able to finally un-strap myself from the passenger seat and walk on solid ground again.  What a relief.  And all he asked for in return was 40 cents for a phone call.  What a guy!

Philip Martins Photography c 2005

So straight to phone I go and order a new back tyre and as luck would have it I was able to get one sent to me the next day from the nearest town which was over 300km away.  Not that that mattered really because I still had to wait two days for Andy to catch up to me who kept on pedaling away into the almost ridiculous headwinds from where I had left him earlier in the day. 

Not much you can do when you’re stuck basically out in the middle of no-where except hand feed to the half starved wild dingoes, have mindless conversations with the staff at the roadhouse who looked even more miserable than yourself or eat choc wedges all day.  But at three bucks each there’s even a limit you have to put on that.  I was going deliriously loopy with boredom.   It was relieved a little by watching the numerous fruitcakes that would wonder into the roadhouse looking dazed and confused by the heat after driving for so long in the Nullabour void.  But when I saw two guys outside in the dust, shirts off doing push ups and then donning boxing gloves (I’m not kidding here either) and having a full on boxing workout in the 35 degree heat that it re-confirmed to me that I was in fact losing that plot.  Not even I can even explain that one I’m afraid.

The 2nd day in the Nullabour nuthouse my new tyre turned up so I was able to relieve my boredom a little further by fixing my bike and everything was looking on the up.  That is until I go to put my spare tube in.  And what do you know?  The guy who sold me the bike in the first place had sold me spare tubes with the wrong sized tube valves.  I couldn’t believe it.  That’s like selling a right-handed golfer left handed clubs.  How could someone in the business make such a stupid mistake?  I was furious and with it being the weekend I was looking down the barrel at spending at least a further three or four days in this dustbowl waiting for another tyre tube.  Its lucky there were no cats around because I certainly would have kicked one.  As for the dingo’s, they had made a hasty retreat to wherever dingo’s go when they see a crazy man swearing and cursing with steam coming out his ears.  So as the tube that blew out was irreparable due to a gapping hole it in, there was only one way out of this debacle and that was to file out the hole in my rim so I could fit my wrong sized spare tube.  I didn’t really want to be hacking away at my $300 bike rim because as people who know me well know, I’m no handy man, but I was desperate. 

Philip Martins Photography c 2005

I had to get out of this joint.  But where was one to find a circular file, about 3-4 mm in diameter and about 10cm long at a roadhouse on a Saturday night in the middle of nowhere?..think hard now…ok times up…a caravan driver of course!  And by this time several were starting to turn up for the night in the wasteland they called a caravan park.  So I hit up the first bloke and low and behold, he didn’t have one. But he did have a jigsaw puzzle of Kazakhstan that he said I could have if things got really bad for me.  I go to the 2nd bloke in line and after rummaging around in the back of his four wheel drive motor home and pulling out everything from old slinkies, car batteries and the odd hairdryer he surfaces with a circular file, 3-4mm in diameter and 10cm long like a man who had just caught the biggest barracuda ever. Smiles and high fives all round.  The dingo’s crept back with caution but with much happier snarls on their faces. I told you they have everything these caravan drivers.  So I file out the rim, fitted the tube and I was back on track.

A day later, Andy turns up and after a bit of a rest for him, we are back on the road.  But we didn’t get far.  Only 4km in fact before we had to turn around and come back to the Nullarbor Roadhouse.  I was destined to spend the rest of my life at this joint I thought as we pedaled back very despondent.  But the reason for turning around was a wise one – our safety.  As the headwind was so strong, you couldn’t hear the traffic coming from behind and when I almost became a road kill myself by being sucked under a 42 wheel 50 tonne road train, we made the decision to sit out the day.  It was a very unnerving experience.

Finally on the 4th day we were able to progress further and after 3 more days of rolling hills and more headwinds, ride into Ceduna, South Australia and complete the epic crossing, 106 years after the first bike crossing in 1896 (the bloke took 31 days back then but had no road to ride on so I take my hat off to the guy!).

There are a number of very interesting sights and places to visit along the Nullarbor Plain.  The sand dunes at Eucla, Western Australia are amazing and well worth a side trip. If your lucky, you may be able to see the old telegraph station which lays buried underneath the shifting sands.  At the Great Australian Bight Marine National Park on the Eyre Peninsula you can see migrating Southern Right whales that come up from Antarctica each year to give birth in the warmer waters.  The best time to see these are usually between May and October.  Here you can also view the amazing limestone cliffs that drop away into the Great Australian Bight which is an incredible sight that seems to go on for miles and miles.

Cycling across the Nullarbor Plain is a truly unforgettable experience.  Yes it is tough going, not only on the body but also on the mind and there will be times when you do ask yourself why am I doing this?  But you really do get to see, feel, hear, smell and taste one of the most remote parts of Australia and the memories will stay with you forever. 

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