Coober Pedy

It’s been a bit of a tough run the last five days, and my body is feeling very worn out, but I’ve made it to Coober Pedy, a town of around 3,500 people best known for opal mining. It’s a dusty place, with no water or other natural resources, other than the opals. But it’s got two supermarkets, and I’m sleeping indoors for the first time in three weeks, since leaving Darwin. I felt I deserved it, after doing over 150km on three of the last five riding days.

I did consider the turnoff towards Uluru, but decided against it. I had looked at organised tours, but they were very expensive (says the man who’s used to $0.25 beers in China). But then when I stopped at the Erldunda roadhouse, and saw the major-league hotties who were on the tourbuses, with almost no guys, I did regret the decision…

Otherwise it’s been long dull days – particularly coming down from Cadney Homestead to Coober Pedy. Huge open spaces, little or no vegetation, no mountains in the distance, no signs of human habitation apart from the road…it can be mentally tough. Add in tough head/cross winds, and the cold temperatures, it gets physically tough too.

I stopped at Marla on Saturday night – only $5.00 for a patch of grass, a warm shower and a swimming pool. It had a big bar, so I thought I would look into what happens on a big Saturday night. Men were walking around in cowboy boots and hats – it seems there’s no rule against wearing your hat indoors – with big belt buckles, and rather suspiciously clean-looking jeans. They were also affecting that cowboy walk – I didn’t realise you got that from riding quadbikes as well as horses. So I thought maybe it could get interesting, especially since the sign said the bar was open until “late.” As it turned out, “late” meant last orders at 20:40, bar closed at 21:00. Sigh. Back to the tent.

Sight of the day: Around 25km north of Coober Pedy, I saw a car up ahead of me driving slowly along the side of the road. Every time a car passed, it pulled over and stopped. I couldn’t work out what was going on, until I got closer. The right front tyre was shredded, but still half-clinging on to the rim, going whap-whap-whap as it kept hitting the car body. Worried about being struck by flying pieces of rubber, I went over to the far side of the road to pass it. The driver didn’t seem overly concerned that he was destroying his rim – the big group of kids in the back seat seemed to be enjoying themselves too. It’s hard to say how far they had gone like that – the next place was 125km back up the road.

Tomorrow I start my last run down towards the coast – it should take me about four days to get to Port Augusta, all going well. Distances between the next few roadhouses/towns are 252km, 113km and 172km. Long ways with not much to see…and I cross the Woomera Prohibited Area. Right now, I have to go and visit the “Italo-Australian Miners Club” as part of my tour of Australian drinking clubs. I shall inform you of my findings in a later update.

Resting in the Red Centre

I have made it to Alice Springs, the “closest town to every beach in Australia.” Which, when you think about it, means that it’s a bloody long way from anywhere. After the huge open expanses of the last few weeks, and most “towns” on the map only being a combined campground/shop/service station, it’s quite nice to be in a reasonable-sized place. About 26,000 people, so it’s got all the facilities I need.

After the winds eased a bit, and changed direction a little, the riding south of Tennant was pretty good really, and I was getting into the swing of it, and I’ve started seeing a few more cyclists on the road now too. I camped at Aileron with a group of 12 doing a supported ride from Alice to Darwin. I could only look on with envy at their ultralight carbon bikes, with no luggage. But I’m sure the weight I’m carrying on my bike impressed them.

The levels of roadkill have increased dramatically. There’s always a few dead kangaroos around, but recently I’ve started seeing quite a few dead dingos, and eagles. But whereas there used to be one every few kilometres, now I’m seeing carcasses every 50m or so. Quite a stink coming from some of them too – I usually smell them before I see them.

I don’t have a radio anymore, but Lew had one in the van, and had a few comments about the music available here. It seems that if you don’t like country, you’d better like western. Every night seemed to be “country night.” They also seemed to play very old stuff, and have things like “the latest song from Freddy Fender” – who I am fairly sure has now passed away. Still, I think I’d rather listen to that than Dad’s other choices – the TAB racing channel, covering all horse and greyhound racing in Australia and New Zealand, or even better, just fuzzy static.

A strong institution here is the “club” – basically they seem to be drinking clubs, formed so that their members can have cheap beer. They are happy to have visitors, but you need to sign in first. Quite what purpose that achieves I don’t know. They are strange places, often a bit sterile, with functional furniture, and open spaces, rather than the nooks and crannies that a pub might have. They all have reasonably priced meals, Pokies and Keno. But there is just something odd about the atmosphere. The Memorial Club in Tennant Creek was very weird. It seemed that no-one was allowed to talk to anyone else, even their friends sitting at the same table. People frowned at us when we spoke to each other. I don’t know, if I just wanted cheap beer, I’d probably stay at home. They’re smoky places here too, the anti-smoking legislation doesn’t seem to have reached the Territory. Wednesday night was a big night though, with “Alfie’s Chook Wheel Raffle” which is “fast becoming a real feature of the club.” There was great consternation when someone didn’t return their card at the end of the raffle. Thankfully it was all sorted out in the end, Alfie was getting quite upset.

I’m staying at the Stuart Caravan Park in Alice Springs, a pretty busy place, with lots of other people around. A few random sorts, people passing through, others trying to get established here – apparently there’s a big squeeze on rental properties. One woman I was speaking to had 9 children – not all present – and she could remember the exact weights of each of them, and how many days premature each one was. I would have thought it would be hard enough just remembering all the names.

A special mention to the crew at Ultimate Ride, who got me sorted out with a new rear rim. After 21,000 or so kilometres, the braking surface had worn out, and was starting to flex in a way it shouldn’t. It hadn’t started cracking, but it was probably not too far away from doing it. So I decided to get it swapped over, while there’s a bike shop here. The next one is 1200km away after all. They put aside some other jobs, and prioritised mine. Since the Rohloff hub makes for slightly different spoke lengths, and they didn’t have quite the right ones available to make the new rim fit, they took the front rim, and moved it to the rear, and then put the new rim on the front. Two wheel builds, and a servicing of the front hub. Something like 28,500km, and one cone is showing some signs of wear. Considering that I have never done anything to it, I figure that’s not bad. It should still last a few thousand more miles, but I’ll need to replace it before my next trip, or I may even do it in Adelaide or Melbourne.

On Thursday I’ll set off again, for the next leg down to Adelaide. Big distances to cover, at one stage 252km between places. Should be OK with some planning though – will try and post my next report from Coober Pedy, in around 5 days or so.

Entering the Real Outback

Well, OK, not really, I am staying on the main highway, but still, the land has changed dramatically since about Elliot. Instead of trees and long grass, now it’s huge expanses of flat land, with a few trees and scrub struggling through. The views are fantastic really, and it would be great riding – except that flat land means no shelter from the wind, and I’m riding right into the prevailing wind. It’s made for very heavy going, and I’m just concentrating on my pedals, turning the cranks, counting down the kilometres on my GPS.

At Banka Banka, they told me that the wind should drop down a bit once I get south of Tennant Creek, where I’m having a rest day now. Looking at the forecasts, it doesn’t look like things will get any better for a couple of days, and Tennant isn’t really the sort of place you want to hang around in, so I’ll be back on the bike tomorrow.

Each day we pick a place to aim for, with a camp ground, and then select distances to stop for breaks during the day. Sometimes there are well placed rest areas, say 40km between roadhouses, but other times there is nothing for 90km or more. The rest areas are getting better though, even having toilets now. We make it to a proper campsite each night, which usually has a bar, restaurant, and ablutions facilities. The campgrounds aren’t too full yet, as the season is just kicking off, but there’s usually a few people around. The typical NT man is quite reserved though, so you might be better off getting conversation from other tourists.

Speaking to some English tourists the other night, they seemed impressed by what I was doing, and thought I was very understated about it. I guess when it’s what you’ve been doing for a long time, and you meet other cyclists doing similar things, it doesn’t seem quite so unreal. But yeah, it’s a hell of a trip. Still got some long hot days to do here though – the drop in humidity has made for pleasant enough conditions, with pretty much no chance of rain.

Lew’s been providing support vehicle services for the last 10 days, but his last day with me is Thursday, then he needs to push on to Alice Springs, to catch a flight out. I’ll take 3-4 more days to reach Alice. I would like to note that the team member average daily beer consumption has increased by at least 84% since his arrival, but I do not think that I can be blamed for it. Perhaps I could compile some graphs showing average daily can consumption before, during, and after his time with me?

Mate, you are ****ing crazy!

“Too right!” was what I yelled back at the roadworkers, who’d just imparted that piece of wisdom. I was on the Stuart Highway, just outside Adelaide River, just starting the second day of my planned trip down to Melbourne via Adelaide. When you take a look at a map, and see the distances between places, you’ll begin to understand that these guys were probably right. Just outside Darwin is Palmerston, and it has around 26,000 people. It’s the second-largest town in the Northern Territory. 1500km south is Alice Springs, the third-largest town, with a similar sized population. Oh dear.

But it’s OK. Maps are plentiful here, and they are generally pretty accurate. Except when places like Coomalie Creek camping ground are closed for the Wet Season. Emerald Springs roadhouse was also closed – hopefully there won’t be too much more of that sort of thing happening, since there aren’t too many other options around here.

More importantly though, I’ve got vehicle support for the next week. My father is driving along in a campervan, meeting me in the middle of the day, and at the end. I would like to point out that I am carrying my gear, but he provides me with cold water, and a cool shady spot to stop. Rest areas can be a long way apart here, and the flies and ants can bug you when you stop. I’ve taken to wearing a fly net over my face, to stop them bugging me when I’m riding. Lew thinks it makes me look like a beekeeper. I figure that’s OK, Sir Ed was a beekeeper.

I’d better not get too used to the support though, it’s only for a little bit longer, and then I’m on my own. The grey nomads are starting their run up towards Darwin for the Dry though, so there are plenty of campervans on the road, and I’m sure people will help me if I need it.

I stopped in Darwin for a few days, staying with my Auntie Leonie, and her partner Col. Great place right next to town – and a nicely maintained town it is too, with wide streets, bike paths, and generally pleasant people. All a bit difficult for me to get used to seeing mainly white, English-speaking people though. I even ate a meat pie the other day. Two in fact.

I also went out to Dundee Beach, to see my Uncle Keith, and his wife Lyn. Great hospitality, and some good fishing too – although he assures me that it was a bit of a poor day out fishing. I was just happy to be out fishing – I think I’ve only done it once in over a year. Some interesting characters out that way too. I’d need to grow a foot-long beard to fit in better. I did try it, but the Iranians told me to cut it off…

So we’re now in Katherine, 320km south of Darwin, and still 1200km north of Alice Springs. It’s not a bad town, but there’s way too many people hanging around the town, apparently with nothing better to do. It’s going to be a long haul south – hopefully I’ll be able to put up another update from Tennant Creek, in around 5-6 days.

Closer to home now…less than 5,000km in a straight line, according to my GPS.