Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Upcoming: Northern Nature Work

ODO same as before... (about 13k for the trip - that's 2.5k km/week!)

Hello again. No real stories to relate as yet. In Darwin overnight. It's an uninspiring enough town, though the local eateries and drinkeries offer a pretty good range and decent value - if you have money to spend. So I've walked right past all of them... none of them really have any charm, and they're all 'financial', in a way that the bush pubs I've been visiting aren't - if you don't have cash, there's nothing to do (though the usual friendly NT hospitality would ensure you never get pressured out, like you might in Sydney). The hostels are also the most expensive I've found, so last night was my first and last!

The next week will be a very relaxed nature tour, through Kakadu, Umbrawarra (near Pine Creek) and maybe with a bit of fishing at Daly's Creek. I have six days before I need to be back here to catch a bus back out again (might be a struggle if I'm staying 130km away the night before, but so far that looks to be the range of my options), to the Cox Peninsula to volunteer creating boardwarks and other facilities to avoid the impact of visitors on dune erosion. It'll be a good week I think, and will even involve a bit of luxury - cooked meals and air conditioned hotel rooms! I should probably say it'll be a good two weeks, really, or perhaps I should say a good 14!

Sadly I actually have to pay for it, though it will be within my weekly budget... I didn't realise at first, but on sitting back to think about it it's an opportunity to do something different - constructive - which I'm enthusiastic about. The endless variation to paradise can actually get repetative.

I hope you enjoy your day as much as I'm enjoying my couple of hours in the library. I just hope you don't feel too bad that the life you're taking time out from is five months in paradise.


Saturday, September 26, 2009

Westward Bound and onto a new leaf in the NT: deliverance in a land of promise

Retrospective: a story to fill the gap between Cairns and Alice.

Leaving Cairns was a busy few days: reef cruise one day, mountain climb the next, heading west (and some caving) the day after that. Pretty hectic and I was buggered - SO much did I enjoy hitting the open road. I don't need rest - riding is my tonic.

The road to Chillagoe - with its semi-above-ground limestone caves - pushed no buttons, for a number of reasons (like traffic and dust). The road out of it pushed buttons alright, but not the right ones! The stretch was one of those country dirt roads that just flows over the undulations of the landscape, no matter what they may be. All very well, except in tropical country relatively flat ground is intersperced by subtle floodways and dry rivers - subtle, that is, until you run into one. It looks as though the road slopes into a gentle dip like the four or five you have just passed through - it is not until you are on the cusp of it that you realise the centre of the dip drops out, and it takes another moment (a panic-riddled moment) to work out what greets you at the bottom of it. Many of these contain craters left by the huge forces of road trains blasting through them - on two occasions I was caught out and rode straight through battlefields no sane road rider would wish to attempt. The second was the more dramatic - I hit a bump on the way down (within that panic-riddled moment), hard on the brakes, violent enough to blur my vision which meant I only had long enough to confirm that the dip was dry - but seated with a set of deep ridges. Throttle on at the last minute, and as both ends bottomed out with a huge clunk the bike skittled over and washed out almost off the edge of the (staight) roadway on the other side. That, however, was nowhere near as intimidating as the one before: a gentle hill descended at the last minute into a murky puddle. And not a concrete bottomed puddle, but a sand-bottomed bike swallowing one! Hard on both brakes - handlebars flapping, rear end dragging through the deep, moist sand that lined the last ten metres before an expected over-the-handlebars wet-and-wild flying trip. By some miracle the tyres pulled through, and the sand proved grippy enough for me to pull up with a good metre or two to spare.

That deep channel towards the right is my hitting the soft stuff.

It might sound like I was going too fast - but at 70km an hour, on 160km of dead straight - largely well-surfaced - dirt, it felt like I was crawling. The dips just drop away so suddenly that no margin of safety will cover you completely. After the third adventure I made a policy of virtually stopping at the crest of any dip that I couldn't absolutely confirm the extent of. It felt ridiculous, but I got through from there without drama.

So pleased to see tar...

From there! Well the road got better before it got worse - and that it got. Less surprises, true, but rough as guts. My destination ended up Bourketown - you know, famous for the Morning Glory clouds? Well, the clouds never came, and I got over Bourketown very, very quickly indeed for a range of reasons... More testing dirt under the belt and I was back onto the highway which would take me Westward through Cloncurry and Isa.

Cloncurry on a Sunday proved little more lively than Bourketown, but Isa on the Monday was a pleasant change - friendly for a mining town, and a good opportunity to get stuff done.

I got talked out of taking the back road to Alice (and for the better - I spoke to a guy who rode through there on his dirtbike who confessed to binning it a handful of times - god knows how well I'd have faired), so onward it was along the tar - hardly complaining for that, with the beauty of the country around Isa.

Soon enough I was in the NT and onto a new leaf in a new land.

Tennant Creek proved a nice little stop - it's only a small town, sure, with a sad former significance as a mining town (every town besides Isa seems to have had the same stories of grandeur and excitement long passed), but with a positive outlook and a great community spirit.

The road from there to Alice I've already written about in reverse (it's great!), and Alice - well you've gotten Alice - so I suppose I've filled that hole. (Though I confess to being overly brief.)


Friday, September 25, 2009

Think that's North? - This, is North

ODO 91,400

In Katherine, planning a day or two in the area, before moving on to Kakadu and Darwin - both quite brief - and back through Kath towards WA. Developing a bit of a todo list regards bike TLC, but she's doing okay.

A few hundred kilometres ago I finally hit the heat. The ride written about towards Tennant was quite cool - I did it with my thermals on. It was very chilly the next morning, and I once again refused to make an early start. At about 1pm though the thermals came off for good. 50km from Dunmarra - a few dozen km North of the unofficial start of the 'tropics' at Newcastle Waters - the heat suddenly appeared.

The days have been hot, but getting to sleep in the evening - in a nice warm tent - is even worse.

Thing is though, it's not that hot. Probably early 30s still, with slightly growing humidity. Warm in the bike gear, yes, and it can't be too cool - I've been thirsty and drinking heaps all afternoon (4L+), with no sign of overhydration - but it feels okay here, quite liveable. In Darwin I hear, where the buildup is in full force - a month ahead of schedule - they're sitting on 30 degrees, 80-95% humidity: in the middle of the night.

... So, maybe those few hundred kms to go mean I'm yet to really experience the North.


Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Bliss of the Open Road

ODO 90 830

Having done what needed to be done - and a little bit more than that - I'm back onto the road North. North from Australia's 'red heart' (Alice Springs and surrounds), which will forever have a home in my heart, I can assure you.

Leaving a place like Alice - my favourite of the trip so far - it might be hard to understand the desire to move on. The feet were feeling slightly itchy in town last week, and I was satiated in my search for giant rocks, but I didn't realise how I'd longed to get moving until I did. Riding had gotten arduous - my feet and fingers each were numbing, my arse the same, and I could never find a good way to sit. I was always tired!

I woke up this morning, with no prerogative other than 'north', and was highly surprised by the chill - the winds which had followed me up from the south, having hit in the middle of the night, brought with them cold that they hadn't had before. I didn't have all that much to do - not that I was going to get into, at any rate - but I decided all the same to sit out the coldest part of the morning. So it was a very late start, and I left still with the thermals on. Fuel 100km up the road, and they stayed on.

Having looked into the ks, the next necessary stop was fuel in Tennant Creek - there were of course many unnecessary ones along the way, that I had passed, or stopped at, on the way down. So I headed off at a stately 85kph - as slow as I can bear to ride, but meaning no fuel necessary for 300k +, rather than 200+ as would be at 140kph (speed limit + 10).

And so, for 317km, I sat, at 85kph, and that was that.

It's hard to describe the experience of a leg like that. It's magic country out here. I had the same experience riding southward, but decided to stop with the sun - though I felt like continuing through the night.

In the end, after nearly four hours, at around 3pm, I had hit the mid-afternoon fatigue patch and was glad to pull in. An hour earlier, though, I was calculating the distances to the rest stops, trying to work out where I could stop if I filled up at Tennant and jumped straight back onto the road south.

There's something magic about a day like today.

The country here is so beautiful, it's really incredible. The Macdonell ranges around Alice are too (just not the same sort of thing), the country around Uluru and Kata Tjuta (Olgas) though quite the opposite. To ride into the wide expanses of Mallee scrub, intermittent rocky ranges and outcrops, spinifex and grasses, wildflowers in the rocks beside the road. The same thing - through constant changes - for four hours of bliss, the best riding you could imagine.

But it's not the country. Or at least not just the country. It's the headspace that it brings on - it and all the other factors of the journey, myseriously colliding on two opposite journeys. On a trip like today's, it's not only the country that opens up - time itself opens up as wide as the broad red earth and the wide blue sky.

There are times when you sit up, breathe out, and completely relax. If you weren't so awake with the moment, you'd simply fall asleep. There's a complete lack of stress, of fatigue, of all bodily and mental worries. They evaporate into the summer sun, or disperse across the dry floodplains of a gumtree 'swamp'.

It's only an 'external' factor, like the stars, a body clock or a fuel guage, that can interfere with the magic of a ride like today's.


Saturday, September 19, 2009

Alice: A Red Heart more than mere stones

ODO 88 500

Firstly, wow. Or as I've been finding myself gasping this afternoon - 'Wow. Fucken wow.'
Secondly, Alice rocks.

As you will read, or will have read, the Stuart Highway into Alice from the north is a great ride. Arriving in Alice itself though is no major spectacle. The rocky outcrops that dot the town, or jut out into 'the Gap', are peculiar, but far from spectacular. They're... rocky outcrops! It's when you head West (or perhaps East) that you realise the beauty of the Macdonell Ranges of which they are a part.

Now, I'm no rock man (normally a tree guy....), but the sheer geology of this place is astounding. There is more variation in 100km of the Macdonell's than in 1000km of Great Dividing Range. That impression might be as much due to the presentation - which if staged could only be described as impeccable, or better yet divine. This is the outback, and the only thing which is completely regular is the inclination of the road, so it might be misleading to think in terms of perfection and fallability.

Not far West out of Alice, as the valley opens up and the range bears itself to view you can see exactly why the Tjikurpa (Dreamtime) story ascribes the ranges to caterpillars. A bit further on you find yourself exclaiming 'now THAT is how to do a rocky outcrop!'. Then a eucalypt-lined 'river' bed, and before you know it you're turning off towards the national park.

The new valley the road meanders up is - despite one's disbelief - even more beautiful than the first. It's here that you are struck with awe at the geology behind this range, the immense violence the rocky ranges represent. Layers of sedementary rock thrust themselves vertically into the sky as ridges beside the road. At the Ghost Gum lookout you read about the different layers of rock that make up the gorge below, and how the top layer (about 100m tall) previously resided 2km to the north.

The geological forces have been weathered by rivers like the Finke, 'possibly' the oldest in the world at around 100 million years, not that it often looks much like a river. The 'semi-permanent' waterholes hidden among gaps in the ranges really allow you to feel the word 'oasis' in a way that no definition ever will.

And the trees... ah yes no landscape can really excell without some beautiful trees... the weathered, wry old souls out here have their backs turned to the winds of time just as everything else does. 'If they could talk...' the cliche goes - you would probably have to sit and wait a while, because the long stories they have to tell, they would be in no hurry to part with.

And that was just a short trip on a Friday afternoon!

I'd heard positive things about Alice - from people that have lived there. Nobody else that has passed through has had much to say about it. I am bemused as to why not. Far and away, it has been my favourite stop of the trip so far.

As I had heard, Alice doesn't have a high proportion of long-term residents. It isn't temporary like Cairns is - the tourists were really quite thinly spread while I was there - but everybody you speak to (or at least all the young people) can count the number of times they've seen the Todd run on the one hand (2.5/year, apparently). The abundance of the 'new' local makes the whole scene immensely approachable, though everybody has their own explanations of the town's charms. Many look outwards, to the town's desert surrounds - whether it is a communal love of the outback, or the sense of isolation.

Another perk is the town's surprising cosmopolitan feel. It only has 20k people! But it has more life than most towns of five times that size. So many people I spoke to arrived in Alice expecting a quiet life, but found themselves busier than ever. Whether it's the music, the art, the sporting or environmental events - there is a deep layer of community activity which is more reminiscent of uni than a regional hub. The Aboriginal aspect to the town is so much more savoury than in many other places. There is a synthetic vaneer to the tourist operations of Todd st, but the next street over there are galleries which don't have 'Aboriginal Art' plastered on the outside, because when it isn't marketted to the tourist dollar the label gives way to its conversation with contemporary art more generally.

Alice is closer to Newtown than Bourketown, and I can assure you that can not be a bad thing.

If you're looking to get away then you could do a lot worse than coming to Alice.


Saturday, September 5, 2009

The FNQ life: a traveller in a city of travellers

ODO 84650

Just recovering today after last night, lazing about in sunny, tropical FNQ. When in Cairns!

Of course, you don't do as the locals do in Cairns, you do as the residents do - none of whom are locals. Even the people that live here moved here from Sydney or Melbourne.

That's not to say it's a small destination like many other tourist towns - it even has city traffic, infuriating strings of roundabouts and out-of-sync traffic lights. I'm staying here on the condition that I only need to ride in once, and out once, and even that is too many. I think perhaps I'm getting used to country travelling.

Cairns is nice enough once you are parked (unless you're in a car and have to pay for it!), though it's weird there's no no beach, just an artificial 'lagoon' (like Brisbane has... nature's water courses aren't good enough for the Sunshine State it seems).

Hoping to find a few 'locals' to hang out with tonight, maybe have a quieter one, find some music... Putting off booking a reef cruise for while I'm up here. I have to, don't I? And i'm looking forward to it. I just don't want to pay for it.

I've since ridden most of the roads in the area - and bugger me there's some beauties.