Three Years on the Road
Brett Davis

19. The Palmerston Highway

Karen and I stayed in Mission Beach for another two days, the first because the weather turned sunny, and the second because it turned lousy again. We eventually gave up the good life, somewhat reluctantly, and hit the road once more. We had morning tea at a rest area by a river where I managed to intercept a large piece of paper that was blowing around the grounds. It proved to be a poster of Pamela Anderson wearing some very nice beads and very little else. Unfortunately, weight restrictions, and the risk of Karen's wrath, forced me to leave it behind.

An old dear at the Innisfail information centre assured us that there was a Pizza Hut in town, and we embarked upon a futile search. After doing a heap of food shopping at Woolworths, we booked into a caravan park near the information centre and had a late lunch. An hour later the owners of the caravan park put on an afternoon tea for their guests. While Karen pigged out on cakes, I enjoyed a couple of cups of Twining's Earl Grey.

Across the other side of the South Johnstone River, a big, bare, spreading tree was teeming with birds, too far away to identify successfully. I talked Karen into walking into town, across the bridge, and down the other side of the river to see if they were metallic starlings, as I suspected. They were. On the way back to the caravan park, while re-crossing the bridge, Karen spotted a large bird in a riverside tree. A few seconds later it flew out into the open - a topknot pigeon - and another new bird! This was number one hundred and ninety seven out of a possible seven hundred and sixty. We still had a long way to go.

On the way back to the caravan park the rain began again, bucketing down as we got closer to home. The undercover campers kitchen was not working too well, as a high wind was blowing the rain horizontally across most of the tables. Due to our late lunch and the free arvo tea, dinner was an apple. My towel, hung on a line to dry earlier, was now drenched, so there would be no shower for me on this night. We spoke to a banana picking ex-Victorian electrician who was on three hundred dollars a week doing back-breaking labour, and also to the father of a guy in a neck-brace who had rolled his car while drunk with his girlfriend and a mate on board as well. Between these scintillating conversations, Karen and I did a bit of reading and hit the hay around ten o'clock.

It was a bastard of a night - warm and humid, with a nasty wind whipping across the water and driving the rain sideways with every storm that blew in. We seemed to spend the entire night zipping up the tent to stay dry, opening it at the first break because of the hot, muggy atmosphere, then zipping it up again when the next shower hit. Karen got out of the tent once to locate and silence a banging sign in the camper's kitchen, and I was up a few times because of a large bottle of Coke I had enjoyed just prior to bed. And all this was happening while a neighbouring tent was flapping itself to pieces only a few metres away.

We had shopped the day before and the bikes were fully laden for what we thought would be a relatively easy day. Our route was the Palmerston Highway from Innisfail to Millaa Millaa, up onto the Atherton Tableland. We knew we would have to climb to an altitude of about a thousand metres, but the distance would be relatively short at only sixty kilometres. A rise of one in sixty. How hard could it be?

We were about to find out. The first few kilometres were pleasant. It was a sunny day, a slight south-easterly breeze helped us along, and the incline was consistent but not too steep. We stopped at the village of East Palmerston, near an old tennis court and a set of public toilets, for a cuppa and some chocolate-coated peanuts. Across the road, a stand of grevilleas played host to Dusky Honeyeaters, and we sighted a new bird, the Bridled Honeyeater. A few kilometres prior to this I had also seen our first Crimson Finch. Two new birds in one day put us in good spirits for the start of the next section of the highway.

We soon arrived at Crawford's Lookout, where a broad sweep of rainforest has been levelled to provide a picturesque view down to the North Johnstone River. It was here that we made our first mistake of the day - we did not stop for lunch, hoping that we would soon find a small settlement with a park and tables or a lookout or a picnic spot where we could relax away from the road. From Crawford's Lookout the road gets progressively steeper. At one point I heard a metallic sound from beneath my bike, and looked down expecting to find that something had fallen off, but all I saw on the road behind me was a scrappy strip of metal which I must have just run over. I thought nothing of it, until further up the hill when I noticed a bulge developing in my front tyre, the bike bumping over it with every revolution of the wheel.

Still not at the top of the climb, and while Karen rode on, I stopped and checked the tyre. I saw a cut about fifteen millimetres long diagonally across the tread pattern, through which the tube was attempting to escape. The Mister Tuffy tyre liner, which had probably prevented a blow-out, was temporarily restraining the tube. I let some air out, pushed the bulge back in, and rode onwards and upwards with a fairly flat front tyre. Eventually I arrived at the crest where Karen was waiting.

"What's wrong?"
"A piece of metal slashed the tyre. The tyre liners are stopping the tube from bulging out, and I've let a lot of air out to stop it pushing through."
"Will it last until we get to Millaa Millaa?"
"Probably. It has to. We have no spares."
"What'll you do if the tube bulges right out?"
"I've got a piece of thick rubber that I can put between the tube and the tyre, like a big, thick Mister Tuffy. If I take it easy on the downhills, it should keep me going."
"Oh well, the worst is behind us anyway. We are almost there. See the sign?"

Karen pointed towards the top of a white post, where a small sign indicated we were now at an elevation of six hundred and seventy three metres. Only four hundred more to go, or so we thought. How wrong we were. The road swept downwards to disappear around a bend, so I kept the brakes on down the hill as I did not want to be travelling at too great a speed if the front tyre should suddenly decide to blow. At the bend, the road continued its downward trend. Down and further down we went, until we saw in the distance, far below us, a bridge across a river. Every metre we dropped was another metre we would later have to climb. For once in my life, I was not enjoying the downhil. I slowly wound my way down towards the bridge, both brakes on.

We had hoped to find a place by the river to have a belated lunch, but the bridge passed from one side of the valley to the other at quite a height above the water. Another sign informed us that we were crossing the Beatrice River. There was no access down to the banks of the river, so we slowly began the long, hard slog up the hill. The descent from the previous crest must have been four or five hundred metres. We realised that we still had almost the entire climb in front of us. Yet another sign appeared. Millaa Millaa was only fifteen kilometres away, but in that short distance we faced a gain in altitude of about eight hundred metres or more.

Clouds had been building up throughout the day. The sky was now almost overcast, with only an occasional shaft of sunlight. Karen and I were soon sweating profusely in the humidity. The bikes were as heavy as they could get, the road was steep and unrelenting, and the air was very sticky, despite the mildness of the day. We thought about stopping for a break, just on the side of the road, but it would be hard later to start off up the hill, so we kept on going, hoping for a flat section. It never came. We would ride towards a crest only to reach it and find that the road continued rising up to another crest further on. Eventually we would arrive at the next crest and the scene would be repeated. The hill was apparently endless. At one stage it steepened so much that Karen dismounted and walked her bike. She later said she was going faster when she was pushing the bike up the hill than when she was riding. I soldiered on, straining, my stomach muscles beginning to knot with the effort. A light, misty rain began to fall.

Finally I reached a genuine crest, only a few kilometres short of Millaa Millaa, but I had hit the wall. I felt bad, my stomach was queasy, and I was beginning to get the shakes. I pulled off into a side road, and donned my rain jacket as quickly as possible. The wind had picked up. Despite the exertion, my skin was icy. Karen soon joined me. She cut a few pieces of fruitcake for me, and I accepted them hungrily. My body knew it needed some energy, and quickly.

All I wanted to do was to lie down and go to sleep, but I forced myself back onto the bikes for the last few kilometres into the town, while I could still ride. We stopped at a cafe for a Devonshire coffee, which I laced with sugar while I quaffed down scones with jam and cream. Outside, the weather had deteriorated. We were now surrounded by cloud and the rain was constant. The richness of the snack did not help the way I felt. After another big effort, we reached a caravan park just outside of town, and booked a cabin because I couldn't face putting up the tent in the cold and the rain. I just wanted to lie down immediately, but forced myself to have a shower first.

After I returned from the shower block, I went straight to my bunk. Two seconds later I was on my feet again, racing over to the sink to throw up a thick, brown mixture of cake, coffee and cream. My head started to pound and I broke out into a cold sweat. After taking a couple of disprin and some water, I returned to the bunk. Within five minutes I began to feel a whole lot better. Karen went out for a shower and a walk around the grounds of the van park, looking for birds. She returned to cook dinner for herself, and to blow up the element in the electric jug. By that time I was well enough to get up and fix it, and to enjoy a good cup of tea afterwards.

We learned many valuable lessons from this day, most importantly that we had to force ourselves to stop regularly and have a break. I had probably been drinking very little water in the morning, and the combined effects of climbing the hill, the heaviness of the bike, and the flat front tyre had caused me to become dehydrated. With the massive sugar hit I then gave myself, my body just could not cope. We had eaten breakfast at about eight, a few handfuls of nuts at eleven, and then worked hard, non-stop after that, missing lunch and not even stopping for a cup of tea. Although we had ridden almost three and a half thousand kilometres in the previous four months, we had climbed virtually no hills. Constant uphill riding was a new experience for us. Our average speed for the day was a fraction over twelve kilometres per hour, with almost five hours of riding. We had recently been averaging over twenty kilometres per hour, so five hours in the saddle would normally have given us a hundred kilometre day. To only manage sixty one kilometres in all that time is an indication of just how tough it had been.

My note in the diary for that night summed it all up quite neatly. "Today we rode dumb!"

Millaa Millaa Falls

Karen and I would not know until a few years later that the total elevation gain on this day - over one and a half kilometres - would be the largest by far of any day we would cycle in all of our travels. In fact, it was about fifty percent greater than any other single day. No climb ever compared to this day's ascent of the Palmerston Highway.

When we arrived at Millaa Millaa, I had been more concerned with throwing up than I was with finding a spare tyre. The following day we tried a couple of places in town, but nobody sold bike tyres. I put a thick piece of rubber between the tube and the split so that the tube would not bulge out of the opening when I pumped it up to a decent pressure. As we headed for the larger town of Malanda, only thirty one kilometres away, we continued to believe that we would have no more trouble buying a tyre, so it did not matter to me that I was still pushing a relatively flat front tyre.

There were no tyres at Malanda either, and our carefree attitude to spares was fast disappearing. The even larger town of Atherton was sixty five kilometres away, a bit too far for comfort, so we rang ahead to their bike shop - which actually sold toys and baby clothes rather than bicycle spares - to make sure they had some tyres in stock. We were told that they could get a tyre sent up from Cairns, and that it would arrive in two days. We had planned to spend a day at Malanda anyway, and a day riding to Atherton, so we agreed to the delivery, but our faith in the widespread availability of tyres was now gone. After Atherton we would always ride with at least one spare tyre, and often with two.

After the rest day at Malanda we rode to Lake Eacham, walked around the lake and spotted three new birds. The rain did not let up the entire time. The tyre had not arrived at the shop when we reached Atherton, but after a leisurely lunch we checked again with more success. Even the rain had stopped, so everything was looking rosy. I tied the new tyre to a pannier and we rode out of town towards Mareeba - a great road! Thirty kilometres, mostly downhill, with a good tailwind. We flew! I pitied two other touring cyclists pounding their way uphill into the wind as we sailed past. We arrived in Mareeba in less than an hour.

We had a rest day in Mareeba, spent reading, maintaining the chains and brakes on the bikes, and replacing my cut front tyre. It was my forty second birthday, so we went to a Chinese restaurant in town to celebrate. The food was pretty good and we were having a nice time until the dessert course was ordered. Karen, as she always does, asked for extra icecream with her deep fried icecream and then got miffed when it arrived because there was no caramel flavouring. When we got charged for the extra scoop of icecream, Karen got really pissed off. I told her she was being really negative, which upset her even more, and she decided to play catch with the wine cask outside the restaurant. We both went to bed mad. Happy birthday, Brett!

The next day we rode the final seventy two kilometres into Cairns, taking breaks at Kuranda and Barron Falls along the way. In the last twenty kilometres Karen's back tyre developed a slow leak which we pumped up a few times before finally deciding to fix it properly. Not long after, we were safely set up in the Cool Waters caravan park, savouring the feeling of having ridden from Sydney to Cairns - a fairly major accomplishment.

Barron Falls - just a trickle

We had ridden three thousand six hundred and seventy eight kilometres. It had taken us one hundred and twenty eight days, at an average of slightly less than twenty nine kilometres per day. On seventy of those days we had been sightseeing, hiking or resting. If we consider only the fifty eight days on which we actually rode, our average was over sixty three kilometres per day. This was quite a change from the occasional fifty kilometre ride - without gear - that we had done prior to leaving.

So how did Karen and I feel?

Well, we both felt pretty good, but we were not getting carried away by our deeds. We realised that the distance we had ridden is roughly equivalent to the length of the Tour de France, which takes less than four weeks. Karen and I had taken more than four months. Still, we had not intended setting any speed records. We had simply wanted to see the country, meet the people and have an adventure, and we had achieved that goal exactly.

We had a long way to go - maybe five times as far as we had already come. For the moment, however, we were quite content to bask in each other's contented glow, knowing that the cycling had ended - for a while, anyhow. Cycling to the tip of Cape York had been considered, and rejected as too difficult, as well as being just plain pointless. We had arranged to meet up with Kevin and Barbara, Karen's parents, in Cairns. They would arrive in their four wheel drive Nissan Patrol sometime in the next couple of days. We planned to store our bikes somewhere in Cairns and hitch a ride around the Cape with them.

What would happen after that, we had no idea.


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