After Karen and I had completed the trip, we were asked us a lot of questions about our experiences. Some of these questions were pretty mundane, like "What was the highlight of the trip?" and "Would you do it all again?" but others were a bit deeper. What did our three years on the road teach us? What insights have we gained, if any? How has the experience changed us? Do we have any regrets? What advice could we give others like us? Let's start with the easy question.
Without a doubt, the absolute highlight of the trip was the simple goodness of the people we met. Karen and I were continually astounded by the friendliness, helpfulness and generosity of absolute strangers. People we barely knew would offer us food and drink, or let us use their car, or invite us into their homes for stays which varied from overnight to three weeks! When we left Sydney in 1995 I had thought that Australia's fantastic scenery would be the highlight. While it was highly spectacular, Australia's scenery proved to be no match for Australia's people.
Of course, there are also a few strange people out there too, and Karen and I met our fair share of them. There was Victor, who was walking around Australia, mostly naked, and relying on the kindness of the people he met to provide him with food and drink. There was the One Armed Cook from Erldunda. There was Brian, the Wyndham caravan park resident who had been cut into small pieces by his father and had put himself back together using the power of the Force. There was the Nannup Sketcher. The strangest people, however, were all the other touring cyclists. Why would they want to do that?
Most of the strange people we met were pretty harmless, but this is not always the case. While Karen and I hoped for the best, we had prepared for the worst. We know that Australia has its fair share of criminals and psychos, but a combination of constant vigilance, careful planning, common sense and plain old good luck resulted in us meeting none of them. Riding pushbikes and living in a tent made us extremely vulnerable. Fear of attack had been our main worry during the planning stages of the trip, but we had gone ahead with it anyway. It was good that we did not miss out on meeting the good people through fear of meeting the bad.
What did our three years on the road teach us? Firstly, Australia is a very big place. If you ever have the feeling that you would like to cycle around it, Karen and I recommend that you lie down quietly until the feeling goes away. If, however, you eventually decide to take the plunge anyhow, just remember how big Australia is and plan your trip accordingly. As a rule of thumb, the distance a car can travel in an hour takes a cyclist a day. The distance a car can travel in a day takes a cyclist a week. The distance a car can travel in a week takes a cyclist a couple of months, and the distance a car travel can travel in a month takes a cyclist a year.
Karen and I have absolutely no regrets about our mode of travel. Cycling makes the travel experience much more intense, interesting, immediate and interactive. You feel the wind in your hair, you smell the flowers that bloom by the roadside, you hear the birds and bees around you, you taste the dust of the willy-willies, you see every rock and every tree distinctly instead of just a quickly forgotten blur. Of course, that is the romantic me talking. The practical me is thinking that you feel the headwind in your face, you smell the rotting carcases of roadkills, the birds shit on you, the buzz you hear is not produced by bees but by masses of irritating, biting, disease-carrying flies, the dust gets up your nose and in your eyes, and there are a zillion rocks and trees in this country and who wants to see them all anyhow?
Another thing we learned is that while all the famous Australian scenic icons like Ayer's Rock, King's Canyon and Kakadu are deservedly world-renowned, it was the unexpected sights that thrilled us the most. The courtship display of the Great Bowerbird was amazing because Karen and I had not known that this plain, brownish bird has a purple crest hidden in a fold of feathers on top of its head. We were similarly dazzled when we topped a rise during a walk in the Western MacDonnell Ranges and came upon the magnificence of Ormiston Pound, which neither of us had ever heard of. The crystalline formation hidden in the darkness of Tunnel Creek was a revelation as well. So was the incredible Echidna Chasm in the Bungle Bungles, the wonderful lake-filled Central Plateau in Tasmania, and the amazing cave near Cape Carnot in South Australia.
Cycle touring also allowed us more time and opportunities for our bird watching as well, a major factor which saw us total almost five hundred different species. We spent so much time in each habitat that it would have been difficult not to see most of its resident birdlife. The area of Australia where we missed seeing the greatest number of birds was around Cape York and the Gulf of Carpentaria, but we had been travelling by 4WD rather than cycling at the time. If we had been on the bikes, we might have seen the Eclectus Parrot and the Little, Yellow-billed and Buff-breasted Paradise Kingfishers which all went unsighted while we were there.
How did the experience of three years on the road change us? Perhaps the most significant change was our intolerance of the crowds, noise, traffic and bustle of Sydney. After the open spaces and slow pace of life on the bikes, the contrast with urban living was striking. A visit to the local shops in Dee Why quickly made us realise that city living was not for us. Even suburbia was overpopulated and rushed. The house in French's Forest was soon on the market, and we headed for the relative quiet of the south coast of New South Wales to search for a place in which to settle down.
It was strangely prophetic that St Georges Basin had been our final destination on the cycling trip, because six months later, after looking at properties up and down the coast, Karen and I had sold our dumpy little French's Forest place and bought a wonderful house in St Georges Basin only a couple of kilometres from where we had finished the trip.
Prior to the trip our polite friends would have called us "careful with money" while the others would have called us "as mean as cat shit". Karen and I prefer the term "frugal" and it was this frugality that enabled us to finance the trip in the first place. During our three years on the road, however, we both went into "budget mode" big time - even our polite friends might have used a less flattering description of our spending habits - and although the trip is now over, the "budget mode" lingers on. Karen and I follow the maxim that it is not what you earn that determines your wealth, it is what you spend.
If we had our time over, would we do it again? Definitely. Do we have any regrets? None. At times we were disappointed that we could not see everything that we wanted to see. In a car, a ten kilometre detour to a lookout is nothing, but on bikes the same detour consumes a large portion of the day. We also missed out on some of the more remote attractions, like Chamber's Pillar, the Henbury Craters, the Wolf Creek Crater, Gosse's Bluff, and the Hamersley Ranges. As the number of these locations slowly grew, Karen and I decided that we would tour Australia again in the future - by 4WD and not by bike - to see all the places we had missed the first time.
What insights have Karen and I gained, if any? When we began the trip, we were slightly fatalistic, like most travellers. How many of us have not taken a plane flight and thought of it as a calculated risk? We knew life on the highway would be dangerous, but we believed (correctly) that the rewards were worth the risk. If we died, then it was meant to be. By the end of the trip, however, we had both come to the realisation that it is not just death that is meant to be. Everything is meant to be.
I realise this sounds pretty weird. It is the kind of thing you hear television evangelists spouting, or end-of-the-world cult followers, or drunks, or the over medicated. Karen and I are both very practical people. We do not have a spiritual bone in our bodies. We do not believe there is some greater being directing our lives from afar. Yet at the same time we have developed an overwhelming belief that everything happens for a purpose. Time and again on the trip the direction of our lives was changed by relatively minor, chance happenings. A coincidental meeting, a lucky find, bad weather, a missed bus. We don't believe that our fate is already determined, but we do believe that when shit happens - as it inevitably does - then rather than fall about weeping we should instead try to view it as a chance to make a new and better future for ourselves. If anyone knows the name of this affliction, or the recommended treatment for it, we would be most obliged if you could pass it on to us.
What does the future hold? Who knows? We have tossed around a few ideas, travel mostly. Hawaii, Africa, Tibet, cycling across Canada and down the west coast of the USA. We have no mortgage and no debt, and while we have no jobs either, we do have enough money coming in to keep food on the table and a roof above our heads. We certainly have plenty of time to decide what to do next.
In some ways the end of the trip was anti-climactic, primarily because Karen and I did not really regard our return to the east coast as the "end" of anything. We were not returning to our old lifestyle. We were not returning to our old house. We were not returning to our old jobs. In fact, we had no idea what we were going to do. We were simply putting Elle and Mel to one side for a while and continuing on with the same adventure that everybody experiences. Life.
Life, however, can be wasted. It can be put on hold. We can postpone indefinitely all the dreams we have, until one day we wake up dead and realise that the opportunity to fulfil those dreams has gone. In the nineteenth century an American Quaker named John Greenleaf Whittier wrote - "Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: 'It might have been!'" He is totally right, even if he does put it awkwardly.
A highly successful advertising campaign for Nike, the sporting goods company, deeply influenced the lives of many when it came up with the slogan "Just Do It". Whittier would have approved. Karen and I approve too.
If you have a dream, just do it. Sure its a cliché, but clichés are clichés because everybody says them all the time, and the reason they say them is because they are true. We don't know what the future has in store for us. We don't know if we are part of some greater plan. We don't even know if we will be here tomorrow. But we do know that we are here now, and that we have dreams, and that we are the only people who can make those dreams come true.