Three Years on the Road
Brett Davis

57. Darwin

The crossing of the continent from Port Augusta in the south to Darwin in the north had taken us ten weeks. We had ridden on forty one of those seventy days, and totalled three thousand four hundred and sixty seven kilometres at an average of almost eighty five kilometres per day. The entire leg from Sydney had taken almost five months, with six thousand three hundred and fourteen kilometres covered at a daily average of just over seventy five. Combined with the east coast leg, we had now covered nine thousand nine hundred and ninety two kilometres in about nine months of cycling, riding on one hundred and forty two days for a total average of over seventy kilometres per day. Of course, once all of our sight-seeing days and rest days have been taken into account, the average drops to less than thirty seven kilometres per day.

I had weighed about eighty two kilograms when I left Sydney. When I stepped on the scales during our first night in Darwin, I was staggered to see that my weight had dropped to sixty nine kilograms! Although most people thought otherwise, I knew I had been a few kilos overweight before we left, but to have lost over twelve kilos was astounding! I had wanted to use the ride to help me shed a few pounds, and had been limiting my food intake to match what Karen was eating, which I had considered to be a huge intake anyhow. Even allowing for a bit of dehydration because of the tropical heat, my weight loss was still considerable. Still, my body looked better than it had in years, and my stomach was flatter than it had ever been before. Karen had not changed at all.

Having ridden so far and taken so much time to get to Darwin, Karen and I were not in any hurry to leave once we got there. When we had phoned Louise and Nev they had offered us accommodation right away, but if they had known how long we would end up staying when we lobbed on their doorstep they probably would not have opened the door. They had cleaned out a spare room for us by the time we arrived and had mattresses already set up. We soon re-introduced ourselves to their kids, Elise and Alana, who probably would not have remembered us from Cardwell almost a year earlier.

I have nothing but the greatest admiration for people who have children. During our travels, Karen and I stayed with many people who were busy raising families, with children ranging in age from toddlers to teenagers. All of them seemed to be coping with the task, but it is one I do not envy. Cycling ten thousand kilometres around Australia is a breeze compared to the constant trials and tribulations that kids provide their parents. The terrors of the road with its roadtrains, hills and headwinds, are nothing when compared with the terrors instilled by a playful two year old child.

Karen and I were to experience a taste of the difficulties of coping with children during our stay with Louise and Nev, and it all began during our first family lunch on our first day in Darwin. Nev is a gold prospector who does odd jobs - between expeditions - to keep his family fed. He was away at work, leaving Louise with the kids. As we sat around the lunch table, two year old Alana started complaining of not feeling very well. A minute later she threw up. Louise took her away to clean her up but returned soon after with her other daughter. Elise had picked up some head lice at school, and Louise applied some kind of lotion to her daughter's hair and then covered it with plastic wrap to contain it all. Just as Louise finished the messy task, the now clean Alana toddled in, gave everybody a radiant smile, and promptly shit herself.

Alana, Louise, Elise and me

Not only did Louise and Nev have to endure these kind of difficulties in their family life, as well as earn a living, but they now had to put up with two free-loading cyclists who had suddenly appeared with little warning and would end up staying for over a month as well! To make matters worse, one of the two cyclists promptly sat himself down in front of the television for the best part of a fortnight and watched just about every televised minute of the Olympic Games live from Atlanta! I guess having kids must really develop patience in people.

Karen and I had been focussed on reaching Darwin and had no idea what we would do after we had arrived. Karen had put the kybosh on cycling down the west coast and we certainly did not want to ride back to Sydney or across to Cairns. There were no trains, so the only options left for us were planes and automobiles, or maybe even a ship. On our second day in Darwin we travelled into the city, partly to hand back the restaurant keys we had found, but mostly to find a way to get ourselves out of town.

With South-East Asia so close, we had toyed with the idea of ducking across the Timor Sea on a cargo ship to continue our cycling trip in Indonesia. Another possibility was a long holiday in Bali for rest and recreation. Or we could hire a van and drive down to Perth. Or catch a plane to Perth, or a bus. We soon found a travel agent and picked up some Bali brochures, as well as a lot of information about Kakadu and Litchfield. It would be stupid to ride all the way to the Top End and not see a couple of Australia's most famous national parks, but we were unsure whether we would cycle around them or take a tour. The travel agent informed us that the Brits-Australia hire-van office was located some distance out of the city, but the Greyhound bus office was only just around the corner, so we headed there next. As we stood in line at the counter, I thought I noticed a familiar face go past the window. I was not positive, but it had sure looked like Mark, the only other person we knew in Darwin. I raced outside and called out his nickname as he walked away.

"Hey! Harold!" The guy stopped dead in his tracks, as if he had been pole-axed. Slowly he turned, and I realised that my identification had been accurate.

"Brett Davis," he said, shaking his head. "What the hell are you doing here?"

We shook hands and set about catching up on each other's news. Karen soon joined us. Harold told us that he knew immediately that I was someone from Sydney, because nobody in Darwin knew his nickname. He had been in charge of construction of the newly completed bus terminal building in which we had just been making our enquiries, and had been called in to tie up a few loose ends. He also told us that his mobile phone had recently been stolen, which was why we had been unable to contact him. We talked for about half an hour before our respective schedules broke up the party. Karen and I could not believe the enormity of the coincidence. To only know one person in a city the size of Darwin and to meet up with him on our first morning in town was pretty unbelievable.

One of the brochures we had picked up from the travel agent described a Kakadu and Litchfield bus service called The Blue Banana. The route of the bus service passed through every major attraction of both national parks, also calling in at Douglas Hot Springs, Katherine Gorge and Edith Falls. One hundred and fifty dollars would buy a three month bus ticket. During this time, ticket holders could travel the entire circuit only once, but they could get on and off the bus at any point and stay for as long as they liked before reboarding the bus to travel on to their next point of call. Four services a week meant that all stops could be as short as a day or two, or as long as the ticket holder wished. The Blue Banana was perfect for backpackers, and even better for two touring cyclists who had all their own camping gear but very little desire to get back on the bikes. We booked to leave in about a week, thinking we could decide what we would do afterwards while we were on the bus trip.

Another week would bring our stay with Louise and Nev and the girls up to nine days - a long time to impose upon hosts, even for Karen and I. We offered to move out to a caravan park but Louise would not hear of it. To make up for our imposition, Karen and I tried to help as much as we could around the house by cleaning the pool, doing the shopping, cooking dinner and contributing ten dollars a day towards the cost of food.

The next week was spent watching the Olympic Games at night and early in the morning, and then visiting all the tourist spots in and around Darwin during the day. We walked around the foreshore at Nightcliff, had our promised restaurant lunch and celebration in town, picnicked and swam at Lake Alexander after walking around the nine inch gun emplacements at East Point, did a car tour around Cullen Bay to see its new marina and housing estate, paid the obligatory call to the famous night markets at Mindil Beach with other members of Louise's family, had a barbecue party at "home", toured the new Parliament House which had cost over one hundred million dollars, had a look at some of the damage done by Cyclone Tracy in 1974, spent a day at a picnic with our new family at Howard Springs, and even hitched up Elle and Mel for an afternoon ride to Lee Point - the most northerly point in Australia we ever reached on bikes.

Karen and me at Lee Point

The absolute highlight of our time in Darwin, however, was a trip to the Northern Territory Wildlife Park. The animals were great, but the most amazing attraction was the raptor display. Kites, ospreys and sea-eagles performed for our pleasure, flying around a large outdoor area and coming in to land on their handlers outstretched arms. Karen was selected from the audience to hold a black kite on her arm, and I also took a photo of her standing next to a rather disdainful sea-eagle.

A sea-eagle coming in to land

Karen and the sea-eagle (Karen is on the right)

On the day we toured Parliament House we also took a two hour cruise on Darwin's harbour, dashing down to Stokes Wharf only just in time to catch the boat. As we pulled away from the wharf, Karen and I looked around at the other people on the boat and discovered that two of them were smiling broadly at us. It was John and Elaine - first met at Ellery Creek Big Hole in the West MacDonnell Ranges, met again at the Dunmarra Roadhouse three hundred and fifty kilometres north of Tennant Creek and now met yet again on a Darwin harbour cruise!

Darwin Harbour shoreline

In between all of this activity and the Olympics, Karen and I also found a couple of other things to occupy us. I fired up a computer that was stored in our temporary bedroom and discovered a really excellent game which kept me occupied for hours as I attempted to reach level forty two. Karen discovered the Casuarina Olympic swimming pool and swam her first laps in over five months since leaving Sydney. She managed twenty four fifty metre laps, pausing for a few seconds at the end of each two laps to catch her breath. Long distance cycling had made us very fit for long distance cycling, but unfit for anything else. Karen's swimming stamina had suffered, but she went out the next day and swam thirty laps anyway, even though she was a bit sore from her first effort the day before. That's the type of girl she is.

We were preparing our gear for the Kakadu bus trip when Wendy - the owner of the Blue Banana - rang. Her business consisted of two buses, with Wendy and her husband Peter the drivers, each making the three day trip around the circuit twice a week, with a day's rest in between. Wendy had some bad news for us. She had to delay our scheduled departure for another week because Peter had had an accident. He had been driving back from Kakadu with an empty bus when it had skidded in deep gravel on the edge of the road and flipped onto the driver's side. Apart from a bump on the knee, Peter suffered only one other injury. His arm had been caught between the side of the bus and the road, and it had been subsequently amputated. Wendy was hoping that within a week she would find a replacement driver, have the bus repaired and normal services resumed, and have her husband home from the hospital and able to fend for himself with one arm. The story was made even more horrific when we learned that Peter had been a very good jazz clarinet and saxophone player, and now would never be able to play again.

They say it is an ill wind that blows nobody good. Peter had lost his arm, Wendy was trying to cope with both the injury to her husband and to their business, and the plans Karen and I had made were now up in the air as well. Louise, Neville, Elise and Alana had the worst of it though - they had to put up with Karen and me for another week!

Still, the delay did have a positive side. I would not miss any of the Olympics now, and I also managed to complete level forty two of the computer game during the week. Karen bought a swimming cap to keep the hair out of her eyes, mouth and nose while she swam, and suddenly found that she was able to breath again. She was soon doing her regular thirty two laps and became such a regular at the pool that the guy behind the counter had no qualms in lending her a pair of goggles every time she visited. I started going to the pool as well, doing a slow half kilometre of breast-stroke and a bit of sunbaking while Karen completed her laps. The water temperature was twenty two degrees Celsius, which is as warm as the ocean pools ever get back in Sydney, even at the height of summer. We were now swimming in August however - the middle of winter - and apart from Karen and myself the pool was almost deserted. Most of the locals do not swim in winter because the water is too cold!

Karen at the Casuarina Pool

As we travelled around Australia, Karen and I sent regular reports back home. We had been in weekly contact with the Inlaws, Kevin and Barbara, but had also sent letters, faxes and telephone calls back to the places where we used to work - Coca-Cola and Roche. After arriving in Darwin, Karen phoned Coke to let her friends at her ex-work know how she was going and where she had reached. They had a map of Australia on a wall, with a pin denoting Karen's position, and would update it whenever we made contact. Karen's phone calls would often be put on speaker, and half a dozen people would pile into an office to participate in the conversation. When Karen rang Coke shortly after we reached Darwin, her former boss, Carla, heard that she was calling and asked to have a private word with her at the conclusion of the call. That private word would lead our lives in a different, but not exactly a new direction.

In Indonesia, a female accountant in the Coca-Cola company was about to give birth. She would be on maternity leave for three months and was being replaced by a guy from Australia named Phil. This would leave a temporary vacancy at Coca-Cola in Sydney. Karen had not been in that particular position for a few years, but had actually trained Phil in the job when he started with the company and could slot straight into the job. For Coca-Cola, training a temp would be unproductive, as would struggling along with a staff shortage, so Karen was asked if she would like to come back to Sydney for three months work. The offer was sweetened with goodies like a company car, petrol and parking, plus very good contract rates. Coca-Cola would also pay for return air tickets from Darwin to Sydney for both Karen and myself!

As with most offers, there were certain pros and cons to consider, but I could not see any cons and told Karen to accept the offer as soon as I heard it. Karen, of course, ignored me, and decided to think about it for a while. On the pro side, the money would be nice. Our bank balance was much the same as it had been when we started travelling, so any extra would allow us to increase our pocket money. I would also get a three month holiday in Sydney, giving me the time to write a book about the cycling trip, if the spirit moved me. We would see all our old friends and family again too, solve the problem of getting out of Darwin and have Coca-Cola pay for it all. We might even be able to swap the return trip to Darwin for a flight to Perth, and so avoid the dreaded west coast. On the con side, however, there was nothing, as far as I could see anyway. It was an offer too good to refuse.

Karen, who would have to do the work, was still thinking about travel, with Indonesia looming large in her thoughts. She told Carla she would think about the offer, and let her know her decision soon. During the extra week we spent in Darwin, Karen came around to my way of thinking and decided to accept the offer. She rang Carla and gave her the good news. Two days later we went to a travel agent at the Casuarina Shopping Centre and paid for two return air tickets from Darwin to Sydney, at a cost of over six hundred dollars each, hoping that Coca-Cola would reimburse us as promised when we got back.

In the next few days we cleaned the bikes, lubricated their chains and sprockets, and generally got them ready for a long period of storage. One day Karen and I would resume cycling again, and we both knew that it would not be from Sydney. We quickly decided that it would be ridiculous for Karen and I to take Elle and Mel and all of our gear with us to Sydney only to have it flown or trucked somewhere else later on. It would be much simpler, and probably cheaper, to have the bikes stored in Darwin and shipped to the new starting point when the time was right, especially when that starting point might still be Darwin. I still had a burning desire to cycle down the west coast, despite Karen's reluctance, and now I had some extra time to work on breaking down her resolve.

We took a break from our preparations with a day at the races. Karen and I had the good fortune to be in town for the Northern Territory's premier horse race, the Darwin Cup. The girls were dropped off with a friend called Vicki, and her husband Geoff came along with Louise, Nev, Karen and I. We placed a few small bets early, and lost. When the main race rolled around, Geoff and I both backed the same horse, a local by the name of Ventilago. It romped in at odds of nine to two, making Karen and I a profit of forty five dollars on our ten dollar bet. Even after deducting the cost of entry into the course and the earlier losing bets, we went back to Geoff's for celebratory drinks with eight dollars more in our pockets than we'd had at the start of the day.

Ventilago winning the Darwin Cup

Our stay with Nev and Louise was only two days shy of three weeks when Wendy arrived with the Blue Banana bus to pick us up. The date was August 8th, and our flight back to Sydney had been booked for the 26th. That would give us about a fortnight in Kakadu, and a couple of days in Darwin before going back to the Big Smoke. Hard as it is to believe, some tourists "do" Kakadu in a day and come away unimpressed. We thought that two weeks would be more than enough time to do it justice...

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