Expedition #12 has several firsts for me:
a. cycling in a First World, Western country. No phrasebook needed (ok, I learnt a bit of 'Strine before I went, such as "hotel" (it can have a different meaning) and "roadhouse".
b. the least time elapsed between start and finish. Usually, I take a few months, on and off, to plan a trip. For this trip, time elapsed between decision to go and flight departure is 12 days, inclusive. Why: "go away or go mad"
c. hub and spoke travel. My base is Frangipanni Bed & Breakfast; I sally forth from here daily, instead of lugging my luggage from one place to another. I leave my seatpost racks at home and each day, use a bum bag with shoulder straps for food and spares. As the bag sits lower down my back, it's cooler. And the shoulder straps support the weight.
d. the longest day in a foreign country, with 18 hours on the road one fateful day (and night).
e. bicycle goes missing ...
Lost and found
Day 1: 15 Apr, non-cycling day. On the way to the airport, taxi driver asks why I need to fly my bicycle: "Aren't there bicycles in Australia?" He adds that I don't look fit; fit people wear jeans and sneakers while i look like I'm going to take a bus. And people who go pn holiday look excited, but I look weary. Well, I think to myself, woe tends to wear one down, which is why I'm taking a trip. And I am taking a bus: an Airbus A320.
After touch down, i wait for my bike box. And wait. One worker says: "It's coming, I hope." Another tells me later that I should exit customs and immigration, and ask airline staff for help, otherwise I'd be waiting all night. So out I go. I can't find anyone from my airline; this is already 16 Apr, around 2 am. How can a 1.4m long box go missing?
After more scurrying back and forth, I talk to a worker who tells me good news. I am so happy to see my bicycle box. Customs opens my box in my absence but nothing is lost. By the time I shower and go to bed, it is 3 am. I sleep 4 hours, with a dream about work and someone at work.
Day 2: 16 Apr, Darwin and its environs, 111 km. I'm glad I come with my fat tyres. Now I know what "flowing trails" mean. Up and down, left and right, sometimes in quick tempo. There are some sudden drops and gullies. I walk down. Dented ego is better than dented body. The trail seems little used, with spider webs. When I clean my sunglasses, I see web hanging from it. I lunch at McDonalds. An aborigine kid with Happy Meal smiles happily at me.
Back on the road, I see a road train. The biggest is three containers long, with 32 tyres. I stop for a break. Banana and water are hot to the touch. A haunting Men at Work song plays in my head: "I can't get to sleep, I think about the implications, of diving in too deep."
Having seen much of Darwin, I take a beautiful park connector to Palmerston. My crank clangs. I stop to see if a screw is loose. A lady on a yellow Canondale stops and asks if I'm ok. By mid-afternoon, I am knackered, pedaling at a piddling 15 km/h. The dry heat and headwind take their toll. I am glad to put my bicycle in the room. After sleeping four hours yesterday, I go to bed at 9 pm. Fat hope, sleep eludes me, I'm still awake after 1.5 hours. Little do I know, it's the harbinger of things to come.
White line, life line
Day 3, 17 Apr, Adelaide River, 244 km. Australia has much wildlife. On Day 1, I see a green frog on a door. I think it is an ornament until it crawls away - on the vertical surface. A roach crawls away under my room door. On Day 3, I pour tea out from a kettle and see legs. Spider-flavoured tea.
On the road, I find a bottle cage hanging by one bolt. I repair it using a discarded point of sale display. Who says advertising is useless? Headwinds again. I'm making poor time. I stop at a petrol kiosk. A bottle of Coke costs almost AUD4? The change in heavy coins turns my Shimano XT into Alivio by weight.
I look up at the clear blue sky. A bird makes no headway against the wind; it just hangs in the air. Not being headstrong, it turns tail and turns headwind into tailwind. I push on. Is that why Aussies call bicycles "push bikes"? At noon, I stop for lunch at an orchard. I'd packed some bananas. I eat one then try to clean something off the remaining one. It breaks and falls on the soil. I try to pick it up, intending to eat the clean side. It slops through my fingers. My brain is fried in the heat, blood glucose is low, hand-eye coordination is poor. Time for emergency rations: M&Ms.
I want to stay in the orchard longer. The wind is cool and nice when it is not a headwind. I push on grimly in the searing heat. With the wind and slopes, I'm making 15 km/h. Ahead, I see a sign. Food! I'm the sole customer at this diner at Acacia Hill. There are three fridges of cold drinks. I'd go crazy if I had energy. As I set off, shopkeeper says: "Have fun." Yeah, if I am solar powered.
I stop to turn it back on. My legs cramp, just because I stop and stand. Where is Acacia? I stop at a well-lit phone booth whose brightness in the darkness is like a beacon of hope. There is a small sign in the booth. Acacia! Cramping, I hobble and push my bicycle to the gate of the diner, which is unlit. If it wasn't for that phone booth... A light comes on, shopkeeper has seen my light. I buy 1.5l of water. He has no food. He chats a bit, says there's a 24 hour petrol kiosk about 25 km away, then says he's had a hard day and is turning in. I sit outside the gate, rationing my M&Ms. I look up at the stars, they are so clear and near. It is 8pm.
Back on the road, I do everything by feel. I can't see my speed nor distance. The luminous dials of my watch are barely visible. Just as well I don't need map or compass, there are junctions but there's only one highway. I keep the thin white line on my left, after seeing some construction debris on the left of the line. Once in a while, I veer off course and end up on the dirt/grass, when I lose sight of the line. My drive train is fed up. It shifts by itself or is sometimes delayed reaction. I make it to Noonamah Tavern. This isn't the 24-hour petrol kiosk. I am the last customer, 5 minutes before closing at 10 pm. I grab a Coke and a Mars bar, and eat beneath a light which is swarming with insects. One of which flies into my eye.
I finally make it to the petrol kiosk. "I'm so glad to see you," I say to the counter staff. I've no appetite, the thought of food makes me feel sick but I force myself to eat a cold sandwich and save the rest for later. And chocolate milk.
|In the dark, unbroken white line is life line. Broken line, broken body|
I've made it so far partly because of a phrase C once said to me: "Suck it up". So, ration M&Ms for "dinner"? Suck it up. Cramps, can't even walk? Suck it up. Do I see fluorescent lights ahead? No, just stars over the tree tops. Suck it up!
Now I know why Aussies swipe the podium finishes at Tour de Timor and other local races. The distances are vast and there are few creature comforts on the road. How can a journey that's supposed to take 10 hours (five there and five back) end up as 10 hours to get there? Head wind doesn't show on maps. The hills near Adelaide River take their toll too. 18 hours in those conditions. And how did I do the return leg in 8 hours? Extreme.
While I was planning the trip, I thought of cycling on the Arnhem Highway. Today, I think Arnhem might be a bridge too far. I've got a plane to catch today and I'm really tired. My calf cramps when I massage it. So I meander about town today, like a leaf tossed about in the wind. I intend to log 145 km today. My goal of "go away or go crazy" has two deliverables: to forget and to cover 500 km. Because of my dreams, "to forget" has not been achieved. So I pump up my tyre, lubricate my chain and buckle my shoes tight - mechanical advantage to compensate for muscle and other "internal" damage.
Lunch comprises energy gel and water on a park bench, as the food places I passed were closed. Some km later, I am in a fish and chips shop. Air-conditioned too. And Coke.
In mid-afternoon, I sit on a bench at Charles Darwin University. I want to lie down and sleep, I'm so tired. My body hurts. My heart is heavy. Another 80 km to go? Whatever for? So what if I cover 500 km? Enough already. So I head back to my room, to prepare for my trip home and get some rest, to be ready for work.
Primary goal of "forget": failed. Secondary goal of "500 km": failed. But I learnt some things after a ride on a very dark side:
a. Simple pleasures of a clean, quiet room, clean clothes and a cold shower after a hot day and 18 hours on the road.
b . I'm made of water. All humans are. Water can be hard, like ice. Sure, I've cycled further than 244 km before. But that longer distance was not on fat knobby tyres and not while carrying a load. Water can be soft, like dew. To stop cycling after 65 km, because it is pointless? I whinge about being a wimp, but to cover an average of 140 km per day isn't bad. Especially on knobbies, with hills, headwind and hunger. And fat tyres - and Racing Ralphs they are not.
c. How important kindness is. The stranger on a motorbike who dipped his head light and gave me an encouraging honk in the dark. The gal at the petrol kiosk who gave me the same "package price" on a combo of food in lieu of what was out of stock. These cost you hardly any effort, but they made a difference to a stranger in a strange land. Thank you. Thank God.
20 May: a month later, I've regretted not cycling 500 km. Sure I was in pain, in body and soul. But, pain is temporary. Giving up, failing, is permanent. Lesson learnt.