Wednesday, 5 August 2015


Day 38 – 6 Aug – Roxby Downs.
Its been nine days since the last post, we've travelled over 500km in that time, and the problems of securing internet access in remote Australia are beginning to show. We are passing towns with public phones, but no mobile phone towers. This is where the difference between the my old pocketmail service and modern tablets are beginning to show themselves. The gaps between posts also mean future posts are going to get a bit epic. I hope this ok.

First, a few clarifications to my previous post.
Riding north to Hawker we encountered remnants of the old narrow gauge Ghan railway. I said that Jamestown might have had greater days as a transfer point for trains heading north-south and east-west. This is incorrect. The old Ghan and the East-West train met at Peterborough.
I also noted changes in land use and implied that that Hawker saw a transition from sheep to cattle grazing. Riding further north that turned out to also be incorrect. There were plenty of sheep Hawker district and further north. It is more accurate to say that somewhere between Jamestown and Hawker farming changes from broadacre wheat cultivation with sheep to purely sheep grazing country, Conscious salved, let's return to the narrative.

Day 30 – Wed 29 Jul – Hawker to Wilpena Pound
I've raved about the beauty of the country we've been riding through until I feel like I've worn out my stock of superlatives. Its a shame really because in the Flinders Ranges the country is really good. The land is folded in and eroded by epic forces and the landscapes are truly awe inspiring. Even the photos don't really do it justice but they speak better than I. Instead I will reflect on the differences between riding and driving this country.

As we rode north of Hawker, riding the undulating road and crossing frequent dry river beds, we travelled at the speed of the wildlife. Eagles soared in the skies above, kangaroos bounded alongside and mobs of emus either wandered past making their deep guttural sounds indifferent to our passing, or sprinted alongside the road. Riding is being in country, seeing it at the scale of the things that live in it, and that experience is worth all the hills and headwinds it throws at you.

The contrast with car travel could not be made more apparent as we entered the Flinders ranges national park and approached Wilpena Pound. The land becomes more lush, changing from salt bush plains to an open woodland. The ranges are a good water catchment and support more life, but unfortunately the last 10km of the road to the pound was littered with dead things – emus, lizards, birds even a kangaroo and joey - in various states of desiccation and decomposition and all showing the tell tale signs of motor vehicle impact. It was tragic.

There's something inherent in driving that reduces the world to a destination, and things that must be avoided on the way to that point. As humans we perceive, process and react to the a world travelling less than 40km/h. After all, for the vast majority of human existence we've only needed to understand a world travelling a little faster than a run. Travel faster than this and our brains have to take shortcuts and we miss most of the experience. When that experience involves a close range animal interaction, most of the time it does not end well for the critter.

We arrived at Wilpena Pound in the early afternoon and spent the hours before sunset near creeks and in the pound (a hollow surrounded by ridges). I could have spend several days there, and maybe one day I will. It is easy to see why it it sacred to its traditional owners, the rock people.

It can seem a bit empty when viewed from a car windscreen at 100km/h
Travel at emu speed and they'll share the journey with you.

Day 31 – Thu 30 Jul - Wilpena Pound to Middlesight Water Hut
Dismayed by the roadside carnage, surrounded by National Park and inspired by the country we decided to get away from the sealed road and return to the Mawson Trail. The trail followed park maintenance and fire management tracks and had stout gates to prevent 4WD access. These tracks were ours to enjoy – if we could handle their ruggedness. The wind picked up. At times the headwinds were so strong that it was difficult to hold our bikes upright. The path became a single track through a forest, and Maree and I got separated for a short while (cue Cure song). I'd got confused whether she was ahead of behind me and eventually I caught up. The track crossed many riverbeds. The rivers were usually in fairly deep channels, so we did a fair bit of getting off and pushing.

However, for our efforts we were rewarded with emus. Lots of them just walking up the road way minding their own business and provided we slowed down to meet their pace, more than happy to have us fairly close. I think a close quarter view of an emu is about as close as I'm ever going to get to meeting a dinosaur. Their feet, their gait, their size, their stumpy useless forelimbs, even their insulating flightless feathers mirror the so many of traits of the beasts from dinosaur books. It was a privilege of share their living space.

We finished our ride at a hiker's hut on the Heysen Trail. The Heysen Trail is a massive hike running from Kangaroo Island to Blinman, something even more challenging the Mawson Trail. The hut gave us a warm place to stay, far away from caravan campers – a place where Maree and I could enjoy a magnificent sunset alone. Inside the hut there was a visitors book. One of the entries was from a pair of cyclists who had followed all the Mawson Trail. It was day 20 of their trip. After reading this we felt much better about our decision to ride using sealed roads and a few highlights of the trail.

Did I mention there were a few rough patches on the Mawson Trail?
But, the views are worth it.
as is the company
Views and hills.  Yep we had to ride up that gravel track to take this panorama.

Day 32 – Fri 31 July - Middlesight Water Hut to Parachilna Gorge
The rocks of the Flinders Ranges are a deep red, have a fine grain and with a little oil make a fine ochre. They also easily split into layers making them perfect for fossil preservation. Many jellies and other pre-Cambrian weirdness have been preserved in these rocks – and whilst I did not find any, there were times where I imagined the ripple pattern I saw preserved in the rock was the remnant of some ancient beach.

The trail took us north and eventually joined the sealed road to Blinman, a former copper mining settlement, now a tourist attraction as the 'highest town in South Australia'. It's a pub and general store kind of town, who's principle attraction appears to be that it's the town at the end of the tar, The walls of the pub are pasted several centimetres deep with business cards of visitors – suggesting that for many, simply getting here was some kind of achievement worth noting by leaving a mark. We resisted the temptation.

The road out of town, heading west and back to the main road north, was a stony gravel track running through Parachilna Gorge. It was steep, curved and chewed up into brutal corrugations by tourists in 4WDs. It was mostly down hill, and I let gravity do the work and had a joyous time doing it. At the bottom of the hill (and after a long wait) Maree reminded me of the consequences of a broken spoke so far away from help – and from then on I've been trying to ride a little cautiously.

Dawn over the hikers' hut
Goats in the gorge
Big - Euro roos too.
And the kind of roads that make you question the wisdom of 300km treks on 4WD tracks

Day 33 – Sat 1 Aug - Parachilna Gorge to Leigh Creek
The last time I filled up with water was two days ago Wilpena Pound. There were opportunities to refill at the hut, at Blinman and at our campsite in Parachilna Gorge at the start of the Heysen Trail, but these were all from tank water sources with 'untreated water' warnings. I had the capacity to reach and expectation I could refill when we reached Parachilna, the first settlement on the main road. This was an error of judgement.

Parachilna wasn't a settlement, it was a pub. A fine looking pub, but a pub that was not open when we got there. There was no water. The next town was Leigh Creek 70km north. Not to worry I had more than a litre of water left. I'll fill there. Then came the headwinds.
I made it, but it was not fun. I was riding as hard as I could and it felt like I was getting nowhere. I rationed my water taking small sips only when I passed the road markers showing the Leigh Creek getting closer. I ran out of water with 10km to go. I kept going, pains in my throat, straining with aching limbs and sore feet and eventually made it to the Leigh Creek roadhouse. Destroyed I gladly paid $4.50 for a 600ml of bottled water, and the same again few minutes later for a Coke. I was wrecked.

Leigh Creek is a strange place. Built in the 1980s to support a coal mine supplying a Port Augusta electricity station, the road layout is weirdly suburban. The school, park and shops are in a central cluster accessed by curvilinear streets and surrounded by detached dwellings on cul-de-sacs. It's very different to the railway era grid towns we've been passing through till now. The overall effect is one of a people denying they are in fact, in the middle of the outback. It feels more like Craigieburn.

Following our water scare, and the difficulty riding the Parachilna Gorge road, we reviewed our plans. Our first plan was to ride along the Oodnadatta Track from Marree to Coober Pedy a distance of around 380km on a 4WD track with William Creek (a one person town) our only possible water stop. After our day battling headwinds on short water rations, this plan lost its lustre, with the longer Marree, Roxby Downs, Woomera Coober Pedy route became more appealing.

Whilst camped at the Leigh Creek Caravan park, we saw a bus load of 'adventure' tourists. It has been a motto of mine (ever since I read it in a Douglas Copland novel) that 'Adventure is never found on the back of a bus'. They were having a good time and provided they stick to themselves they are welcome to it. To avoid questions we snuck away from the caravan park as soon as our tent was up, found a spot in the spinifex to watch the sunset, then ordered dinner at the Leigh Creek pub, only returning to the caravan park when the adventure bus tourists were either asleep or crowded around their camp fire paying no head to the outside world.

Into the headwind
Rail gang settlement on the Ghan

Day 34 – Sun 2 Aug - Leigh Creek to outside Marree
Weather gods be praised, today we had a tailwind – and my were we happy. We revelled in a wind which allowed us to sit on 30+ km/h for most of the day, even as the sealed road gave way to gravel.

Our breakfast stop was Copley, a tiny settlement 6km north of Leigh Creek where an enthusiastic cafe owner served us bacon and eggs and told us of the roads ahead. Apparently they are in the best condition we can expect. There were floods a month ago and the roads were recently graded. This was good news, but didn't change our plans – we were taking the long way with more service stops – via Roxby.

As we continued we passed more ruins. These were settlements for the maintenance crews for the narrow gauge Ghan railway. They occur every 10mi of railway and the people who once lived there were responsible for their making sure the train go through their patch of rail – which in given the periodic flooding meant reconstructing the railway every once in a while. Keeping the Ghan open involved a significant commitment in staff and money – a commitment Commonwealth governments were once prepared to make.

We pass a ruined rail gang settlement as we ride pass the Leigh Creek coal mine. The mine closes in 2018. Nobody wants their coal now that the Port Augusta power station has closed. The mine and probably much of the Leigh Creek township will follow the rail gang settlement into ruin.

Speeding on we arrive at a Roadhouse and pub called Lyndhurst. Several horses wander by nibbling on the salt bush doing their horsey thing. They seem oddly out of place. We buy a couple of salad rolls for lunch and push on.

After Lyndhurst the road becomes a patchy mix of bitumen and gravel, the wind pushes us a long, but it also kicks up dust and soon we are riding in a dust cloud and I'm reminded of Mad Max Fury Road. Its an eerie experience being surrounded by a beige sky and not really having any horizon. We are in remote country now.

We ride more than 100km and could have quite easily ridden into Marree, but it being Sunday, us looking to avoid caravan park questions – we chose to camp 5km out. This way we can arrive early on Monday, do a shop and then ride on. We camp among the salt bush and can see the lights of Marree on the horizon. Our reality is becoming a cinematographer's dream.

An abandoned house, and soon to be abandoned coal mine
Dusty Tracks
and spectacular sunsets

Day 35 – Mon 3 Aug - Marree and Oodnadatta Track
Marree was once an important rail head. Three diesel locomotives are parked in the centre of town and are a reminder of the days when herds of cattle driven down the Birdsville Track were were loaded onto rail cars and sent to market. Today, its a place where convoy groups of four wheel drive tourists make their last supply stop before heading into the desert.

We stock up at the general store. Our last major supply shop was Hawker, and we feel we are running low. It is a small shop, but has a big price tag. Maree buys a hedgehog slice for later, and it is fantastic. It has a layer of mint, and we finally eat it we rave about it – joking that a dedicated boyfriend would be prepared to ride to the shops – that shop – to get their girlfriend a hedgehog if they asked for it.

We head out on the Oodnadatta Track a little after 10. Our route involves a 65km section of the track before we head south. The track is corrugated but the biggest challenge are the four wheel drives convoys – groups of three vehicles who pass way too fast, kicking up dust and stones as they pass. I ride ahead, and take a rest stop at a Ghan steam train water tower. As I look up at the rusted tank a kestrel pops over the edge of the tank and hovers directly above me. The bird is three or four metres above me flapping madly but stationary in the air. It then soars off in search of more interesting prey leaving me completely amazed.

We are near Lake Eyre, and pass briny creeks and salt flats. This arid country has an otherworldly look and we too are looking different to our city selves. It's been eight days since my last shave (or shower for that matter) and I have ridden in and slept in the same clothes all that time. My scarf has picked up a red dust hue and it is fraying. If this is Mad Max country, I look the part. I have become a warrior of the wasteland.

We find the Borefield Track, our road south to Roxby Downs in the late afternoon. It is quiet compared to the the Oodnadatta Track. This road is a functional mine access track, not some challenge for the four wheel drive set. We camp and marvel at a sunset and colours that fill both horizons. After the sun goes down the sky changes hue, first rich oranges and reds then deep blues and purples until it the first stars appear.

Is this the end of the line for Commonwealth Railways?  Marree
4WD suspension turns the track into washboards.
Decisions, Decisions - we head south.

Day 36 – Tue 4 Aug – Borefield Track
The northern end of the Borefield Track is stony, firm and in better condition than the Oodnadatta Track. Unfortunately, as we we head south it becomes sandy – and sandy tracks are a bastard to ride on. The bike slips out from under you and staying upright becomes a constant challenge. The sand occurs in small drifts among the stony track, so navigating it is tough work.

The road was tough of the bike kit too. The constant bumps riding over the rocky track knocked my tent out of its position and it fell on the ground only to be dragged tens of metres before I realised what had happened. The road wore a hole in the outer storage bag but thankfully no further. That problem was easily fixed with gaffer tape. Later on a bolt fell out of one of my panniers. It supports the front rack mount. Again gaffer tape to the rescue. I hope it will hold for the rest of the journey.
I had hoped to ride 110km and make it into Roxby Downs. I rode hard. Maree took a more sensible pace. Toward the end of the day we passed a large fenced area – a wildlife reservation that formed part of the Olympic Dam mine, an offset area designed to smooth over the approvals process and take placate those with environmental objections to uranium mining.

We encounter the 'Arid Recovery' area in the late afternoon. I was confident we could make town, Maree was equally sure that it was still too far away. Either way, she recognised the fence for what it was, the start of mining company managed land, and thus the end of opportunities for sneaky bush camp. I was several hundred metres ahead when I encountered the fence and rode on.

Maree was livid when I finally stopped for a rest and wait for her to catch up. It was approaching 5pm, less than an hour before sunset and I'd left our last possible camp site several kilometres back – and were roughly 20km out of town. After the offset area, was the mining lease proper – complete with dire warning signs about trespassing on an active mine site. I'd stuffed up, and our only option was to backtrack. There's something particularly awful about riding back down a tough gravel road. It was hard to ride down, it is equally hard to ride back and you know you'll have to ride it again tomorrow. There are responsibilities that come with riding on ahead, and I'd stuffed up.

When fences appear stop and discuss options.

Day 37 – Wed 5 Aug - Roxby Downs
We started the day camped in salt bush country on fine desert sand, slept in bivvy bags and were awakened by birds tweeting at the dawn, three days down rough gravel tracks away from anything resembling a town. By midday we were sitting in a shopping mall car park watching young mothers load their SUVs with a the week's groceries. The contrast was made all the more extreme by the local radio station ROX FM playing 'The Carpenters' on public address as we rolled down the main drag. These mining towns do their very best to bring suburban life into remote country. I'm not sure I like it. It feels weird – David Lynch weird.

No comments:

Post a Comment