Once we had set up the tent in the caravan park, Karen and I introduced ourselves to our new neighbours - a common practice. We worked on the theory that people we knew were less likely to rip us off, and more likely to intervene if someone else was stealing any of our gear.
One nearby tent contained a Tasmanian biker named Stuart. He had smashed up his BMW motorbike on the Oodnadatta Track and was waiting in Alice for the repairs to be completed. We also spoke to a Japanese biker named Yoichi. His English was not great, but we learned that this was his fourth trip to Australia and he loved riding our rough, huge, open spaces - something he could not get in Japan. We also spoke to a couple of caravanners, Redvers (Red) and Barbara, whose van we continually passed when coming and going from the camping area.
Dinner on our first night in Alice Springs was washed down with a couple of cans of XXXX beer, purchased from Yoichi for a dollar per can. He had been stuck with a slab of beer when a few riding buddies had taken off for other places. He had too much beer to carry, and too much beer to drink, so he was selling as much as he could to minimise his losses. I was only too happy to help him out.
We spent most of the next day walking around the town, doing all the regular preparations for the next part of our travels. This included visits to a tourist centre for information on the West MacDonnell ranges, the bank to check our finances, a bike shop to buy two new tyres (much needed after the Marla debacle), Woolworths for shopping, Vinnies for a book or two, a grog shop to check prices (expensive) and the cinema to check movie times and prices. In the middle of our shopping we re-met Abe and Jan, the American birders first met at Marla. They gave us good reports on the birding in the area. We also ran into Red and Barbara who gave us a lift back to the caravan park.
In the afternoon Karen and I decided to have a swim in the caravan park pool. It was clean and inviting, and as cold as hell. I braved the water and Karen asked me how cold it was. In reply, I pointed to a naked three year old girl who was paddling in the shallow end of the pool and said - "She used to be a boy!" I then tried every means at my disposal to persuade Karen to join me, but despite numerous toe dippings to test the temperature, and one aborted attempt to walk into the water via the pool steps, Karen refused the delights of a dip. So I threw her in, something I had never done before and, judging by Karen's reaction to the dunking, something I should never do again.
A glance at a billboard outside the caravan park office told me that a rugby league State of Origin game was being played later in the evening. I scanned the number plates of the cars around the camping area, hoping to find some travellers from Queensland or New South Wales who might like to invite Karen and I to watch the game with them, and discovered only one possibility - Red and Barbara. They thought that watching the game was a great idea. In fact, they removed their television from the van, set it up on a table outside and even provided chairs for us to sit on. Red even donated a cask of riesling to add to the atmosphere of the festivities. As the game progressed, a few interested bystanders dragged up some chairs of their own, and in the end we had quite a group watching the football. For the record, New South Wales won by eighteen points to six and took an unbeatable two games to nil lead in the series.
Red, Barbara and I watching the State of Origin footy
With most of our preparations for the next part of our ride completed, Karen and I were now free to be tourists. We walked into town and climbed Anzac Hill for a view and a photo over Alice Springs and stopped along the way to photograph a clump of Sturt's Desert Pea. A walk along the dry Todd River took us to the Old Telegraph Station and a small, dirty pool nearby - the actual springs after which the town was named. We also added a new bird to our list - the Hooded Robin.
Karen had extracted a buy-one-get-one-free voucher from a tourist brochure, so at lunchtime we headed for Hungry Jack's. Just as we walked in the door, Karen groaned.
"Oh no! See that guy over there?" she asked, surreptitiously pointing towards a man seated at a distant table. I nodded.
"That is Alan West. I went to school with him, and it was always a contest between him and me over who came first in the class. Nobody really liked him, but he always spoke to me for some reason. I hope he doesn't notice me."
"C'mon Karen," I said. "Why not go over and say hi?" We finished our burgers and I dragged a rather unwilling Karen over to his table.
"Hello Alan," said Karen. He looked up.
"Well, if it isn't Karen Stewart," he said. Then he turned to the woman next to him, who we assumed was his wife and said "This is the girl I told you about, the one who always used to beat me in maths!"
In the course of the subsequent introductions and conversation, we found that Alan was living in Alice Springs, and that he and his wife were staying at the same caravan park as we were. Yet another coincidence. Our coincidence list was getting as long as our bird list!
In the afternoon I bought a much-needed new pair of shoes - cheap, but a better design than the shoes I had bought in Adelaide which had given me so much trouble. We went to the movies a bit later, seeing Primal Fear with Richard Gere, which was okay. Night had fallen by the time the movie finished and it was with some trepidation that we began the two kilometre walk back to the caravan park. However we were soon joined by a group of soldiers on a training exercise who were headed in the same direction. A six man escort of military men packing automatic weapons made us feel pretty safe.
The following morning a French woman we had first met on our walk in the Olga's spoke to us for a while, and gave us two eggs to have for breakfast. A passing stranger donated two muffins as well, and Stuart gave us a quarter pound of butter as the spares for his bike had arrived and he expected to be leaving later in the day. This sort of generosity was a much appreciated feature of our travels, and happened surprisingly often. Karen and I wondered if we looked like we were destitute, or in dire need of a good feed.
Further tourist activities continued after breakfast. We spent three hours in the excellent Museum of Central Australia, fascinated by the displays on the Henbury meteorites and tektites. For lunch, we walked to the town's botanical gardens, named after a lady called "Olive Pink". What could her parents have been thinking? The gardens were okay, but plants and flowers are more Karen's thing than mine.
Late in the day and back at the caravan park, Karen and I met an American touring cyclist named Michael. He looked strange in a hippie kind of way, with long, thinning hair, glasses, and a huge handlebar moustache, but he seemed fairly normal when we could get him to speak. I don't think he ever asked us a question, but he was perfectly happy to let us fire questions at him. He hailed from New Mexico, and a Confederate flag flew proudly atop the small trailer he was towing. When he heard that we had had tyre trouble in Marla, and quite a few other flats, he told us of a method of tyre and tube protection that he had devised. He placed a slightly smaller tyre inside his normal tyre, and then covered the tube with another tube which he had slit and de-valved. The combination of two tyres and two tubes on each rim was bulletproof. His only problem had been the tubes wearing out due to old age! I took note of the technique, but decided against using it until absolutely necessary. I would not want to be two hundred kilometres from the nearest town and find out that the idea did not work.
After one more rest day, Karen and I were ready to ride again, this time on an out and back scenic detour to the west of Alice Springs. Seven kilometres out of town, we stopped near Mt Gillen to view the final resting place of the ashes of John Flynn, the man who gave Australia its Flying Doctor service. Then, after turning off the main road and riding nine kilometres to the famous Standley Chasm, we discovered that the tourist spot was now owned by aborigines and we would have to pay for the privilege of viewing it. Not wanting to have wasted eighteen kilometres of riding, we decided to fork out the money. Six dollars lighter, Karen and I walked through the Chasm, taking photos as we went. It was fairly impressive, but pales in comparison to a much more impressive formation we would encounter later in our travels.
Riding towards Mount Sonder
We retraced the nine kilometres back to Larapinta Drive and later turned onto Namatjira Drive, which would take us to the rest of the West MacDonnell's features. Lunch was taken by the dry Hugh River, and afternoon tea at a lookout after some scenic but difficult riding over solid undulations. We met another two touring cyclists - Cindy and Bob from Nevada - who gave us some advice on where to stay and what to see up ahead. A quick ten kilometres and a turn-off followed by two kilometres of dirt brought us to the camping area of the wonderfully named Ellery Creek Big Hole.
Like Standley Chasm, the Big Hole is a gap in the range created by the erosive effect of water. The fact that this erosion had occurred in one of the driest places on one of the driest continents on Earth gives testimony to the age of the range. It had been a long day - one hundred and seven kilometres - but the beauty of the scenery had made the journey a pleasure. We soon had the tent set up and we wandered down to have a look at the Big Hole. A surprisingly large pool prevented dry access through the gap in the range.
A cold night soon fell, and after dinner Karen and I invited ourselves to the fire of Robyn and Tony, a caravanning couple from the central coast of New South Wales. They offered us chairs and cordial and we spoke with them for about an hour before the negative tone of the conversation forced us back to our tent. They were nice enough people, but their attitude to most of the places they had visited was derogatory - been there, hated it.
Next day we continued westward. Our only stop during a fifty kilometre ride to Ormiston Gorge was morning tea at a combined lookout and rest area, complete with large water tank, where scores of spinifex pigeons and hundreds of zebra finches were gathered. At the gorge, we quickly set up the tent and covered the bikes before setting out on a walk to Ormiston Pound, asking ourselves - how good could it be? We had heard of Ormiston Gorge of course, but who has ever heard of Ormiston Pound? After recently visiting Wilpena Pound, we did not think that another pound could compare. It did not take us too long to climb the range to a saddle that overlooked one of the most impressive sights in all of Australia. Ormiston Pound was totally unexpected, huge, rugged and awesome. It is probably better than Wilpena. Words cannot do it justice.
We continued on into the Pound, crossing the dry Ormiston Creek a few times as we made our way out through the gorge, past the waterhole and back to camp. After dinner we attended a good, free slide show at the Ranger's office, afterwards pointing out to him that his description of one bird as a Grey Teal was incorrect, and that it was actually a Pacific Black Duck. He later checked and confirmed his error. The evening was capped by coffee and biscuits in the caravan of Bev and Harold from Brisbane, our neighbours in the campground.
Two days riding in a row was enough, so we decided to spend a rest day at Ormiston Gorge. While taking photographs at a lookout on the Ghost Gum walk after breakfast, I discovered that the lens mount on my camera was coming apart. This was the lens that had been returned to Sydney for repair after dropping it at the start of the Great Ocean Road, and which I had received back when we had arrived in Adelaide. Needless to say, I was pissed off with the faulty repair job. What should I do? Go through the long and expensive process of returning the lens to Sydney to the same people who did not carry out a decent repair in the first place? Or try my luck with somebody new? I would decide when we got back to Alice Springs.
After lunch, while Karen and I were writing postcards and updating the diary, Keith, Elaine, Harry and Edna arrived at the campground. We soon caught up on all the latest happenings since we had parted ten days before at Erldunda. In the late afternoon I did a quick walk across country to again view the Pound, before returning to cook dinner. Karen and I spoke with Keith and Elaine in their van until 9:30pm, and convinced them that the Pound was worth the walk. In the morning we accompanied them on the Pound walk which had so impressed us. Before we began riding again after morning tea, Karen and I received a promise of a roast dinner if we made it to Ellery Creek that night. The promise of a free meal had us pedalling furiously.
Firstly, however, we had other sights to see. We continued west to the end of the sealed road and rolled into Glen Helen Gorge. A short walk, a few photos, a quick lunch and we were off again, riding into a stiff headwind that at times had us doubting whether we would reach Ellery Creek in time for dinner.
Glen Helen Gorge
Halfway through the afternoon Karen and I returned to the lookout with the water tank that we had visited a few days before. As we rolled to a stop and leaned our bikes against a table near the tank, we noticed two other vehicles, a 4WD and a caravan, which were parked on opposite sides of the rest area, neither showing any signs of occupation. Just after we had seated ourselves at the table however, a couple left the caravan and came over to our table. Shortly afterwards, a guy we had met at the Ormiston Gorge slide show left his 4WD and joined us as well. Karen and I found it very interesting that we were the catalyst for the two vehicles owners to talk to each other. Until we appeared, they would have stayed in their respective environments and never interacted.
Pretty soon we were all sitting around talking and watching the spinifex pigeons and zebra finches which thronged to the water at the base of the tank. I mentioned to Karen that we should put the kettle on for a cuppa, but Paul, the four wheel driver, would not hear of it. He insisted he would make us a cup of tea, and recommended a particularly fine brand of Orange Peko he just happened to have with him. While he was away at his vehicle, Ken and Betty, the caravanners from Sydney, offered us some leftover custard flan. Sticking to our rule of the road which says to never refuse anything, we agreed. When they brought it from out of the van however, it looked far from left over. Only a small portion of it had been eaten. Ken and Betty insisted we finish it off completely. They did not get any argument from Karen.
While this incident was rather remarkable in the quality of the food and drink on offer, it was typical of the kindness and generosity we experienced and received all over the country. Total strangers would offer us all kinds of things, from normal items like a cuppa, a meal, a beer or a fill for our water-bottles, to some more eccentric items like metho or matches.
Much refreshed by our exceptional afternoon tea, Karen and I continued on towards the Ellery Creek Big Hole and arrived shortly before dusk. A lone dingo watched our every move as we set up the tent near Harry and Edna's caravan and Keith and Elaine's camper. The dingo was probably waiting for a handout, but his waiting and watching went unrewarded. Karen and I, however, did much better than the dingo, scoring our promised dinner courtesy of Elaine and Edna. While I do not profess to follow many Seventh Day Adventist teachings, I can honestly say that their diet cannot be faulted. Dinner consisted of vegetarian nut-meat patties, vegetables and gravy, with a dessert of prunes and some kind of light, crunchy grain. We spoke about Seventh Day Adventist stuff for an hour or so, Karen dropping her clanger about the screws, and we retired to the tent after hot cups of Milo.
The cold night gave way to a cold morning, and some of our group shared a communal fire with another couple, John and Elaine, while we ate our porridge breakfast. We did not know it at the time, but we would meet John and Elaine on quite a few different occasions over the next few months.
Alice Springs was over one hundred kilometres away so we packed up quickly the next morning to get an early start. The dingoes had howled all night, obviously sad to see us go. We said goodbye to our four friends again, also bidding farewell to the family we had shared the spa with at Stuart's Well who were also camped nearby. We were back on the tar by nine o'clock, slogging into a persistent easterly wind.
We stopped for morning tea - twenty seven kilometres - near the site of an old car accident. Various car parts and medical equipment still littered the area - a Suzuki grille, some bent roof racks, intravenous drip packages, a respirator, and a registration sticker on a broken piece of window dated January 1996. Karen and I sleuthed around the site, trying to piece together the details of the accident from the scraps of information we found, finally deciding that the driver had deliberately run off the road in a desperate attempt to avoid a dreadful noise coming from his car stereo. We reached this conclusion after finding some mangled Julio Inglesias tapes amongst the carnage.
The headwind showed no sign of abating as we slogged east towards Alice. Then, very suddenly and without any pre-meditation, Karen and I simultaneously invented a new Olympic sport! An approaching car driver gave us a wave, and Karen and I responded with waves of our own, as we had on countless other occasions. However, this time we reacted in perfect harmony, lifting our right hands from the handlebars and giving identical waves before returning our hands to their original positions at exactly the same time. Karen, riding in front, was totally unaware that anything strange had happened, but I was simply amazed at the beauty, perfection and artistry of our matching reactions.
"You should have seen that!" I said.
"What?" said Karen, looking around.
"When we waved to that guy who just passed us, we did it exactly the same. It was beautiful!"
Karen gave me her usual Brett-is-being-stupid-again look.
"No, really, it was perfect! It was just like synchronised swimming!"
Karen's look did not change very much. She knew my opinions about synchronised swimming. If a sport, any sport, is judged on how good you look while you are doing it, then it is not a sport. It might be entertainment, it might be good physical exercise, it might be very difficult to become proficient at, but it is not a sport. The Olympic motto of Citius, Fortius, Altius means faster, stronger, higher. It does not mean prettier, sexier, more intricate. So-called sports like synchronised swimming or diving or gymnastics should be dumped from the Olympics. So with tongue firmly planted in cheek, I carried on.
"We should start up a new sport - synchronised cycling. It's gotta be as valid as synchronised swimming."
"You mean people would ride along like this?" Karen stuck her leg left out and waved her arm with a flourish.
"Or this" I said, and I leant forward over the handlebars and balanced on one leg, with the other leg resting on the seat and pointing directly behind me.
"But we would have to wear sequined outfits, and wear nose-plugs, and grin a big, cheesy grin all the time we were doing it, wouldn't we?" Karen asked, breaking into giggles.
"Of course. And why stop at synchronised cycling? Why not synchronise every sport? We could have the Synchronised Olympics," I continued. "We could have synchronised diving, synchronised running, synchronised high jump, synchronised shot put, synchronised pole vault, synchronised hurdling..."
The list went on and on as we laughed our way into the headwind. We did not know it at the time, but synchronised diving would one day become a real sport in the Sydney Olympics.
We late-lunched at the Simpson's Gap ranger station, then rode down to the gap for the obligatory photos. Perhaps it was the long, hard day that made us fairly blasť about seeing Simpson's Gap. In town prior to leaving we had heard a few tourists complain of being "all gorged out" and we were beginning to understand why. How many names are there for a gap, anyway? We had now visited Simpson's Gap and Standley Chasm and the Ellery Creek Big Hole and Ormiston Gorge and Glen Helen Gorge - all with their own peculiar attraction but also similar in the greater scheme of things.
The sighting of a new bird - the Grey-headed Honeyeater - near the Gap should have brought us great joy, but Karen and I hardly noticed because our good humour from earlier in the day had deserted us. We were well and truly embroiled in the middle of a big argument. The long day must have taken its toll on both of us. Despite being told by a ranger that camping was not allowed at Simpson's Gap, and despite numerous signs confirming this directive, Karen decided that she had ridden far enough for one day and wanted us to set up the tent near the carpark after the last car had left in the evening. With the comforts of Alice Springs beckoning from less than twenty kilometres away, all I wanted was a quick trip into town closely followed by a nice hot shower and a worry-free sleep.
An interesting argument ensued. Karen was the irresistible force. I was the immovable object. There was no thought of compromise in either of our minds, no common ground, no appreciation of how the other one was feeling. I decided the issue by stating that I was riding into town and if Karen wanted to camp at Simpson's Gap I would leave the tent with her. Eventually, and very, very reluctantly, Karen sulked along behind me, not talking, not making eye contact, not wanting to appear that she was enjoying the amazing bike path we followed back into town. Firmly entrenched in dawdle mode, Karen idled along the path, barely above walking pace. By the time we reached Alice Springs after one hundred and four tough kilometres, day had become night. We rode into town with tail-lights flashing as brightly as our tempers, and a very strained evening was had by all.
The Simpson's Gap - Alice Springs bike path
We stayed for two more days in Alice Springs, preparing for a brief ride into the East MacDonnell Ranges. On the first day I looked up the Yellow Pages, found a camera technician in town and took my damaged lens in for repair. The following day I picked it up, paying thirty dollars for an "iffy" job. The technician was remarkably honest, saying that he could not guarantee that the mount would stay together. He pointed out that only three of the six mounting screws were secured firmly, with the threads in the other three screws totally stripped. There was not enough room to re-drill and thread a larger hole, and he had been forced to use some sort of bonding agent to hold the mount together. I was very impressed with his service, and despite his doubts, the lens held together for the rest of the cycle trip. In fact, the lens mount is still going strong!
The only other highlight of our second short stay in Alice Springs was lunch on consecutive days at the Pizza Hut. Halfway through lunch on the second day, I was so sick of pizza that I actually resorted to the pasta and salad bar - something I had never done before! It may appear that when we were in Alice Springs, Karen and I ate nothing but fast food, and we did, but there are extenuating circumstances. We arrived in the Alice after twelve hundred kilometres of lentils and rice, and pigged out accordingly. Then we had cycled out to the West MacDonnell's for a week before returning to Alice Springs for another couple of days of binge eating. We would soon be riding out into the East MacDonnell Ranges for another few days and would need additional sustenance on our return as Tennant Creek, the next big town up the track, was six hundred kilometres away.
The shoes I had purchased prior to our ride into the West MacDonnell Ranges had begun to fall apart so I took them back to the shop and asked for a refund. The female manager of the shop was loath to part with any money, arguing that no shoes would withstand the demands of cycling and cross-country hiking. I countered by saying that no decent shoes would start to come apart after only eight days of use either. We finally reached a compromise, with me buying another pair of shoes, better and more expensive, with the cost of the original pair deducted from the price.
After two uneventful days we rode east out of Alice Springs for a look at the other end of the MacDonnell Ranges. Eighty one kilometres brought us to Trephina Gorge and an excellent camping area complete with tables, chairs and a gas barbecue, and all for the princely sum of one dollar per person per night! We stayed for four nights, spending three relaxing days talking to the passing parade of campers and doing all the walks in and around the gorge. On the second day Karen and I spent about six hours on a walk up onto the range, along the ridge-top to a spectacular lookout and down through the Chain of Ponds to the John Hayes Rockhole. The Chain of Ponds was almost totally dry until we reached a canyon section where we were forced to climb out of the gorge due to two impassable (if we wanted to stay dry) waterholes. An hour and a half along eight kilometres of dusty road took us back to Trephina.
Riding towards Trephina Gorge
The scenery had been great, but when I tried to capture it on film I discovered that my camera was broken again! It was not the mount, but a lever inside the camera body which was busted, preventing the lens aperture from closing when the shutter was released. It seemed likely that this problem had been caused by the original accident at the start of the Great Ocean Road. I got around the problem by shooting every photo with the lens wide open. When we eventually returned to Alice Springs I would get the camera repaired by the same guy who fixed the lens, but it would not be cheap.
Back at Trephina, my bad mood over the broken camera was lightened somewhat after a floor-show by an attractive Scandinavian girl at a neighbouring campsite. Late in the afternoon she decided to treat herself to a solar shower. Unfortunately, she also decided to keep her bikini on during the event, but it was still a memorable experience. The setting sun acted as a backdrop, its orange glow highlighting the tan of her glistening skin and the colour of her long, blonde hair. I was rapt, silently cursing the gremlins that had disabled my camera.
We spent our last night at Trephina socialising with people from neighbouring campsites around a communal fire. A second group of campers was having a party about fifty metres away, listening to the third state of origin Rugby League match. As our group broke up and returned to our respective campsites, the radio volume increased. Karen and I settled snugly into our sleeping bags as we listened to the last few minutes of the game. The mighty Blues from New South Wales won by a point to complete a three games to nil series whitewash. We hoped that the party would break up once the match finished, but alas, it was not to be. The Blues supporters decided to celebrate their victory, the Queenslanders decided to drown their sorrows, and the party turned loud and ugly, eventually finishing shortly after two o'clock in the morning.
It is sad that football, drinking and swearing seem to be the only pleasures in the lives of some people.