My intended route wasn’t necessarily the easiest or straightest. Most cyclists traversing the common Adelaide to Darwin route head straight up the Stuart Highway. Having grown up in Australia, the majestic allure of the outback wouldn’t quite be the same for me as it is for your average international tourists. Cycling past overpriced roadhouses and dodging road trains wasn’t how I’d find the pure solitude I was after. I decided to venture North-East with the ultimate goal of cycling the Birdsville Track – one of the more remote “roads” of Australia.
The track itself is 523Km in length and trisects three deserts – Sturt Stony, Tiari and Strzelecki. Therefore it was no surprise that this part of Australia is one of the driest, receiving less that 100mm of rain annually. Within these 523km there is one pub, The Mungerannie Hotel, which provides bare essentials. As my ride started gaining momentum, I wanted to have the opportunity to have some absolute solitude. I was hoping for a clean break from friends, family and technology to make a transitional change to a new life and I was hoping the track would facilitate this shift. It would only be six days, but six days is a long time for someone who is constantly connected to the outside world.
On a sunny Monday morning I headed out from Marree, nervous in anticipation as to how difficult cycling the track would be. Many cars can do the trip in one big day, chancing their tires with each bump they speed over. I knew the bicycle would be a different, more laborious story. I’d loaded up with 6 days worth of pasta packets, tuna, oats and muesli bars- hoping energy and weight would make up for the lack of variety. I’d chosen to carry 15L of water (enough for 3 days) for if things took a turn for the worse. My bicycle was so heavy that I couldn't even lift it off the ground. Water precautions were artesian bores drilled along the way, but they spill out water with high sulphur levels at nearly boiling point with a rotten egg taste - an absolute last resort. That first day I managed to push out 140km thanks to a generous tail wind. A false sense of security was achieved as I climbed into my sleeping bag on that first night feeling eased. Things got progressively worse each day.
The smooth rock-hard clay finished and I was now really earning every kilometre cycled. For the next 4 days I was continually harassed by the many elements that make outback cycling horrid. The road was more corrugated than anything I’d seen before; jarring my wrists and elbows at every opportunity. The large rocks stuck out of the ground like small icebergs waiting to puncture a tire. Wind was never below 20-30kmph making each peddle stroke that little bit harder, whilst constantly driving sand into my face. Flies followed me as a phalanx, attracted no doubt to my horrendous smell; they grew even stronger when I tried to make a meal. And finally the sand, the mountains of sand that I had to peddle and push through, draining any energy I had left. From sunrise to sunset, these elements worked in combination to push me- both physically and mentally – to my absolute limits. Luckily no one was around to hear my swearing.
Growing up in Australia, I always knew the outback was a tough place to live. But I could never really appreciate all that it encompassed by sitting in a 4WD - the Australian outback is truly unrelenting. You can never really have all factors culminating into a perfect day. For example, a swift tailwind not only intensifies the heat, but it also allows the flies to keep up. A headwind negates the flies, but makes you work that extra bit harder. Just when everything is perfect, sand dunes will appear, making you lose all momentum and force you to push the bike for kilometres.
If it weren’t for the generosity of strangers also traversing the track, things would have been a lot harder. I was constantly offered water, was given a dehydrated meal and cans of coke. I was even offered a beer in the middle of the midday heat in one of the driest parts of Australia. Only an Australian would offer a beer to a sweaty cyclist. Only an Australian would gladly accept it. The generosity of strangers never ceases to amaze me. With a growing sense of confidence, I also managed to cycle the inside track; a more adventurous route. The inside track hasn’t really been opened since 2010, due to the track being in such a dilapidated state. I was fortunate enough to cycle the track and I’m not really sure if anyone has done it solo and self supported on a bicycle.
There was a little sense of pride as I rode my bicycle into Birdsville. The town has a population of 100 for most of the year, with numbers swelling to 10,000 for the famous Birdsville races. I went to the pub to have a token beer after putting in a hard weeks work. After unsuccessfully trying to charm the young barmaid with my tale of adventure - the first person under the age of 60 I’d seen in over a week - I went to the bathroom and looked into a mirror for the first time since leaving Marree. A think layer of dust was caked all through my beard, moustache and eyebrows. My face looked genuinely gaunt and my cycling shirt was crusted over with salt stains. I toyed with the proposition of paying $30 for an unpowered campsite to simply have a shower. But I rode to the outskirts of town and pitched my tent. Only one more week till Mt. Isa – my first shower in 16 days.