The thought of getting out of Australia and beginning this journey in earnest had dictated my fast itinerary from Adelaide to Darwin, with days off being a luxury. So it was with great satisfaction that I’d arrived in Mt Isa, a somewhat desert oasis, for a four and a half day break of rest and recuperation. Mt. Isa’s raison d’etre is to service the abundance of mines situated on the outskirts of town. I’d arranged to say with Shane and Steff, two friends from Adelaide and over the next few days I was treated like absolute royalty, experiencing a somewhat culinary renaissance when compared to the last month. How quickly circumstances change. Instead of pasta with tuna, I was treated to rib eye steaks, McDonalds and pub meals. My perennial fear of catching scurvy had somewhat regressed by having meals that had a best before date within the next two years. Cycling around the world is made that little bit easier with hospitality like that. I can’t thank you guys enough!
From Mt Isa my direction shifted west along the Barkley Highway, with the sun now setting directly in front of me, reminding me that I was getting closer to Darwin. The highway was built during the World War 2 to supply Darwin with necessary supplies for an impending Asian invasion. Once again I had to load up with six days food and carry at least two days worth of water. This continual process was starting to wear a little thin. To test my resolve even further, I now had to ‘share’ the road with proper road trains – the 53 metre ones with 4 trailers. These trucks are not to be toyed with; the shear suction is enough to suck me under without the driver even noticing. This continual game of cat and mouse would continue all the way to Darwin.
Monotony and routine kicked in only a mere 5km out of Mt. Isa. My day would consist of deflating my mattress at 6am, packing up camp by 6:30, cooking breakfast and start cycling by 7am. A single flat road would stretch over the horizon, and I would be bored out of my mind until about 11am. Refuge would then be sought under some makeshift shade where I would sleep/eat/read until about 3pm. I would then cycle until dusk and pull off the side of the road. The tent would be set up, food cooked, and sleep achieved usually by 8pm. Road trains would then continue to wake me up throughout the night. Repeat this process by ten days and you have one jaded cyclist.
The further north I rode, the more oppressive the heat became. Daily temperatures would rise to the high 30’s, with hot desert winds never really easing. All my muesli bars had melted, my honey had crystalized and my once firm lip balm had transcended into a gooey mess. Even the tar from the road would stick to my tire, forcing me to stop and pick it off. My thirst would be quenched from water sitting at room temperature (38C), and each lunch break I would have to squish an abundance of small ants that had infiltrated my food pannier. Some days I couldn’t be bothered and my morning porridge had that little extra crunch.
What kept me motivated during this strained routine was the kaleidoscope of personalities one finds in the free camps scattered along the empty highways. One night I’d managed to meet a recovering heroin addict who was travelling around Australia with his two daughters; trying to reconnect and make up for lost time. Not many people would admit to sharing ideals with person who is often looked down on by society, but his experiences and philosophical outlook on life not only resonated with me, but also reaffirmed to never judge a book by its cover – resolute advice for me who has to trust strangers every day. But not all meetings are positive. The next night, near Tennant Creek, I was confronted by three drunken locals in the dark, proclaiming that I was “camping on their land” and therefore I needed to pay them money. They kept repeating their demand and the dangerous mixture of false bravado brought on by alcohol, combined with the anonymity of darkness, gave them extra courage and I more concern. In the middle of nowhere, with no one around, I had to stay calm and defuse the situation in a passive way. Eventually they left. I guess it was good practice for not paying bribes in Africa. After hesitantly deciding to stay the next night at another free camp, I met a lovely couple from North Queensland who shared their beers and dinner with me, and even made me lunch for the next day.