Three Years on the Road
Brett Davis

Part 4 - Sydney to Darwin

33. Hills and Rain, Cold and Pain

Once Karen and I had made the decision to stay at Lawn Hill and then bus back to Sydney for the Lord Howe Island sailing trip, the next step in our journey had become obvious - southward to Victoria while the summer lasted. After returning from the sailing trip however, we did not head off on our bikes again immediately. We first spent a few weeks on a property called Peacehaven north-west of Bulahdelah, about three hundred kilometres from Sydney.

The property is owned by a friend of ours named Nita. She had recently sold her house in the city and bought one hundred and twenty acres of rural living. Bordering a state forest, the property consists predominantly of forested hillsides, but cleared paddocks alongside the Myall River provide grazing for a few cattle and horses. Together with her partner George, Nita owns a few trotters that have had some success in both city and provincial races. One paddock on the property is ringed by a makeshift but useable trotting track, with the inside containing a dressage arena for Nita's three-day eventing practice.

The house has verandahs all around, overlooking an in-ground pool and small orchard. It is a beautiful place. The serene, rural outlook, the bordering creek, the wonderful trees and the prolific birdlife all combine to make Peacehaven very aptly named. The quality of the house and gardens, and the feeling the property gave us were the benchmarks against which all other potential settling-down places would be judged.

Me and Peter building steps

While we were there, Karen and I cut a few lawns, slashed a few paddocks, cleaned the pool a few times, planted some natives, built a set of steps down a grass bank (Karen's brother Peter worked on the steps with us) and helped build a duck-house, but our primary task was to help George with the fencing. Apart from the boundary, the property was unfenced, and needed to be divided into a number of paddocks. With the help of a neighbour's tractor with attachments for post-hole digging and pile-driving, George and I placed and set all the fence-posts for all the paddocks. The strainer posts were the worst. Located at the corner of every paddock, and at major changes of direction of the fence-line, they were a couple of metres long, up to half a metre in diameter, and as heavy and awkward as hell. These had to be man-handled over to the post-holes, lifted and slotted into place, then packed with rocks and earth to provide a solid base from which to string the wire fences. The minor fence posts were driven into the ground with the pile-driver, the greatest difficulty being keeping the line of posts perfectly straight. These posts were then drilled at measured intervals ready to be threaded with wire. Karen and I would leave before this task was done, but at least the bulk of the heavy work had been accomplished.

Eventually though, it was time to get back onto the bikes. It was now mid February 1996. We had ridden into Cairns in late August of the previous year. With the intervening time whiled away in Cape York, Lawn Hill, Lord Howe and Peacehaven, we had virtually not touched our bikes for five and a half months! It was definitely time to start pedalling again.

Because we had not ridden for so long, Karen and I decided to ease back into bicycle touring gradually. We would ride down to the Inlaws holiday house at St Georges Basin and have a break for a week or two before travelling on. After all, we had just worked for almost three whole weeks and desperately needed a holiday! St Georges Basin is a large body of water about two hundred kilometres south of Sydney, with a couple of villages nestled around its shores. Karen and I decided to ride there without panniers, with Kevin and Barbara transporting our gear down once we had arrived. We would stay in a motel for the one overnight stop along the way. This meant two long days of about one hundred kilometres each, but we figured that it would be a breeze without our usual forty kilograms of baggage each.

And it was a breeze - a strong one directly into our faces from the south! Karen, as usual, took it all in her stride, but I was suffering after about forty kilometres. This was the first occurrence of a condition that would become known as 'the first day blues'. Every time Karen and I took an extended rest from cycling, my thighs would begin aching after about two hours of the first day back. I had once experienced the same feeling while on a hundred kilometre ride in Sydney's south-west. On that occasion, the pain had been so bad that I had been forced to stop, get off the bike and walk. And I had actually stopped in the middle of a long downhill!

I soldiered on into the stiff southerly, my legs constantly feeling like they were about to cramp. Our computers registered one hundred and two kilometres at the end of that first day, and I no longer believed that we were easing our way back into the cycling. Strangely, the next day my legs were fine, despite another long day of ninety eight kilometres. It seems that my legs just had to be told to put up and shut up.

After nine days at the holiday house, Karen and I left St Georges Basin on a warm, sunny morning in late February. We had decided to head inland to Braidwood and then south to Cooma, and thus avoid both the Hume and Princes Highways. While this route would offer much less traffic and much greater safety, many of its roads were dirt. More than half of all the dirt road riding we would eventually do on the trip would occur during this three day period.

Two roads lead from near St. George's Basin to join up with the main road from Nowra to Braidwood. We chose the Wandean Road, the more southerly of the two, as it was the most direct. We had travelled both roads before, in vehicles, the northern one quite often, the southern one only once and in the back of a troop carrier with limited visibility. We could remember no major difficulties with either, so the shortest way seemed the best. We hit the dirt after eight kilometres and would remain on the dirt all day. The road passed through vast tracts of state forest - beautiful stands of timber providing excellent shade. Apart from a few undulations, the route was surprisingly flat. We remembered that the less direct route climbed gradually but constantly along most of its length, and we knew that Nerriga, our destination for the night, sat atop a five hundred metre high plateau. Somewhere, sometime, on this lesser travelled road, we would need to climb up onto that plateau. Had we forgotten something as important as a huge hill? We soon had our answer.

Karen saw it first. She paled, and uttered a single expletive. Karen almost never swears. It takes something extreme to make Karen resort to such strong language, and this hill fitted the description. We did not even attempt to ride part way up it. We just stopped at the bottom, took a couple of deep breaths, and began pushing our bikes, upward, ever upward. For one and a half kilometres we slogged up this unrelenting hill. Towards the end, when the hill was at its steepest, Karen and I were really struggling. We would push the bikes for a distance of about thirty metres, then lock on both sets of brakes as we gasped in as much oxygen as we could and waited for our heart rates to get back to something approaching normal. After a couple of minutes of recovery we would do it all over again, slowly but surely getting closer and closer to the top. In some sections the road was so steep we were unable to push our bikes directly uphill, and were forced to zigzag our way upwards. Even then the footing was difficult, the smooth clay surface causing us to search for more purchase on embedded rocks, or roots, or shallow grooves caused by water run-off.

Eventually the road levelled out beneath a rocky escarpment before making a final leap up onto the plateau. Here we found some unexpected difficulty in the form of two water-filled pot-holes which completely covered the road. We pushed the bikes around the perimeter of the pot-holes, the water lapping at the bottom of our panniers.

Karen in a water-filled pot-hole on Wandean Road

The plateau was dry, and the late summer sun was pushing the temperature into the thirties. We rode a few more kilometres to a junction with the main Nowra-to-Braidwood road, and a bit further on stopped at Tianjara falls for lunch. Karen was unable to enjoy the sandwiches she had prepared, or the views of the spectacular vertical drop of the falls from the plateau. An occasional pain in a tooth had flared into a severe and constant pain which the temperature and difficulty of the day was compounding. With Karen in tears, and taking aspirin, we considered our options, one of which included me hitch-hiking to either Nerriga or Nowra, sending an ambulance back for Karen and hiring a truck to retrieve the bikes. The dental problem seemed to be caused by one tooth being higher than those around it, causing pressure, inflammation and pain whenever the tooth was touched. Because this happened whenever Karen had her mouth closed, she was in pain for much of the time. After half an hour of rest, the aspirin had reduced the agony from unbearable down to pretty bad. Karen decided she would soldier on.

The main dirt road was dry, dusty and very corrugated. Sometimes we could pick our way between the worst of the bumps, but often they could not be avoided. My diary describes the rest of the afternoon as "lots of low gear ups and brake clenching downs", a series of hills which sometimes required us to get off and push. Apart from the Mount Inkerman lookout road, I had ridden almost four thousand kilometres and four months to Cairns without a hill getting the better of me, but after less than three riding days from Sydney I had been "defeated" twice. Perhaps the most surprising thing about this section of road was that we had driven it many times and had not expected it to be difficult at all. It was a lesson that would be drummed into us often during the rest of our travels. Rely only on descriptions of road conditions given by fellow cyclists or motorists towing caravans. They see, feel and remember every hill, bump, breeze and kilometre. Never trust descriptions of the road given by car drivers, even when the car driver is yourself.

Having expected the road to be fairly easy, and knowing the day's distance would only be about sixty kilometres, Karen and I had started out with only our three frame-mounted water-bottles filled. The heat and difficulty of the day had quickly cut into our water supply, and shortly after lunch we began rationing our remaining water. Our knowledge of the road helped us in this situation, because we knew that the dot on the map marked as "Sassafras" was not merely an empty locality as other "towns" had proven to be in the past, but a loose agglomeration of three or four properties and houses where we should be able to replenish our dwindling supply. We walked our bikes up the steep hill into Sassafras then rode on in search of water. A cottage at the end of the long, tree-lined main drag looked like our best bet. We left our bikes propped against the gate and climbed through, listening closely for farm dogs, wandering bulls and shotgun-toting yokels. None appeared, despite a couple of knocks on the door, so Karen and I circumnavigated the house, found a rusty tank filled with crystal clear water, and filled all six of our bottles.

It is amazing how quickly a situation can change from desperate to comfortable, simply by the acquisition of four litres of water. This lesson was to remain with us for the rest of the trip, and would prove invaluable during the outback cycling. Every evening we would find out where water was available for the next day's travels. If there was none, or the information was suspect, we would carry enough water to see us through to the next definite supply. Sometimes this would be a roadhouse or town, while at other times it might be a tank or a river.

But all of this was ahead of us as we rode out of Sassafras with our bottles filled. The water made the afternoon bearable, but Karen and I were still thirsty when we arrived at the small town of Nerriga. Our cycle computers showed we had travelled less than sixty kilometres in almost six hours of actual riding time, at the lowest average speed we would ever record - less than eleven kilometres an hour. Normally we would arrange our accommodation and put up the tent before investigating a new location, but on this day we rode straight to the pub, propped our bikes against the hitching rail, and walked inside to order a couple of schooners. Karen has never been a beer drinker, but she put away the long, tall glass of amber ale like a regular. I had a second beer before we reluctantly left the comfortable gloom of the pub for the harsh reality of a night in the tent.

Our destination for the next day was Braidwood, a large and historic town about fifty kilometres from Nerriga, and at a similar elevation. While there was some dirt road to be traversed, the majority of the road would be sealed, so when we set out shortly before nine the next morning, we believed we were facing a much easier day. What a stupid thing to believe!

For the first hour out of Nerriga we cycled on tar, but then the inevitable dirt began again. A succession of trucks passed us in both directions, picking up road-base from somewhere behind us and dumping it somewhere ahead for road-works. With each passing truck we were constantly bathed in dust. Breathing was difficult. Eventually we reached a wet section of newly-laid road surface and soon passed a water truck and heaps of road base piled on the side of the road. We breathed a sigh of relief in the knowledge there would be no more dust and no more trucks. What we had not reckoned on was the rapid deterioration of the road. No wonder they were in the process of repairing it! It was full of corrugations, rocks, sand and ruts, but we persevered and eventually reached the end of the dirt and the beginning of the sealed surface. Now for an easy run into Braidwood, we thought, incorrectly of course. We were obviously not learning from our experiences.

The run into Braidwood was far from easy. A solid headwind reduced our speed to a crawl, forcing us to pedal all the time, even on the downhills. The road consisted of an endless series of large undulations. We pedalled down the hills, and crawled up, only to be hit by the headwinds again at the crest. When we finally reached Braidwood, both Karen and I were tired and sore. It had been a heavy two days. We lunched in a park near the local swimming pool, taking our time in the mistaken belief that we had almost finished our cycling for the day. After lunch we rode down the town's main street, looking for the familiar blue and white caravan park sign which would point us to our accommodation for the night. We did not see one, so we stopped at a service station on the far side of town and asked for directions.

"Could you please tell us how to get to the caravan park?" Karen asked innocently.
"Sorry. We don't have a caravan park in town."
"You're not serious! In a town this size?"
"There have been a couple of attempts to start one since the old one closed down, but the local council does not want a Big 4 style park with lots of sites and all the mod cons like a pool and restaurant and things like that. They want something small, something that fits in with the historical nature of the place, but there would be no profit in a small park like that so we go without."
"Well, do you know of any spots outside of town where we could camp?"
"There's a place near the river about twenty kilometres along the road to Nerriga."
"No thanks, we've just ridden from there. How about along the Cooma road?"
"Maybe. There's a couple of river crossings where you might be able to put a tent up."

We slowly made our way south, fighting the westerly cross-wind which had given us so much trouble prior to lunch. Seventeen kilometres further down the road we had still not found a suitable site. People who have never camped out assume that camp sites abound. They believe that all we have to do is stop when we get tired, walk into the scrub and set up the tent. They fail to realise that most land in this country is owned by someone who may take great offence at uninvited campers using his property. Most land is fenced too, making it difficult to impossible to get bikes and gear from one side to the other. It is usually cleared as well, for crops or pasture, making safe, out-of-sight camping impossible. Even non-fenced, non-owned bush is often unsuitable. It can be thick with trees, with no spaces for a tent. It can be hilly, with no flat spots at all. It can be covered with rocks, or flood prone, or covered with ant nests. Or it could be unsuitable for a million and one other reasons, any one of which is enough to stop you camping on it. Finding a flat, grassy, safe and private site is much more difficult than many people would believe.

We had already cycled seventy kilometres for the day in trying conditions when we stopped at a property to ask for advice. Even this apparently simple act can be a dangerous one, so we chose a homestead with nice gardens, well maintained fences, and an absence of the derelict cars which seem so prevalent around a lot of Australian properties. A criminal psychologist might tell us exactly the opposite, but we worked on the belief that mass murderers and terminal psychotics always live in squalor, and that nice people live in nice places. As we pushed our bikes up the driveway, a sign indicating that the land was an animal and bird conservation area also helped to ease our minds.

An hour later we left the property. Nevin, the owner, had invited us up onto his verandah for a sit and a chat, and we enjoyed a pot of his tea and home-made biscuits. We watched the birds in his garden, and talked about aboriginal rock art and conservation. Nevin had then brought out some detailed maps of the land to the south which pinpointed the location of a campground at the Deua National Park, another twenty five kilometres further on.

By the time we reached the camping area our fifty three kilometre day had stretched to ninety five. We set up the tent and walked a hundred metres through the bush to wash in the Shoalhaven River. Upon our return to the tent, a light but consistent drizzle began, and we cooked and ate our dinner in the small amount of shelter offered by a visitor information board.

The extra distance we had cycled on this second day due to the absence of a caravan park at Braidwood meant we were camped only fifteen kilometres from where we had planned to stop the following day, so we decided to add this distance to our planned fourth day and accomplish the four day leg from St Georges Basin to Numeralla in three days. This would make the third day a bit over eighty kilometres, a quite reasonable distance in normal conditions. Unfortunately, we would not be riding in normal conditions.

The rain continued on and off all night. Thinking we had plenty of time, Karen and I took the opportunity provided by our unscheduled stop at Deua to walk to one of its main attractions - the Big Hole. Only forty five minutes each way from the camp ground, the feature is well worth the walk. Formed by an explosion of superheated ground-water, the Big Hole is a sheer-sided, vertical shaft about fifty or sixty metres deep and twenty metres across, carpeted at its base by tree ferns that appear like small flowers when seen from the viewing platform perched on top of the hole.

By the time we had returned to the camp ground, the light rain had eased, but shortly after we started riding, the rain set in, along with a strong, cold north-westerly wind. Not too far up the road, the tar ran out again and the dirt road gradually softened as more and more rain soaked into it, making the going difficult. We sheltered behind a big gum tree for morning tea, filling the kettle from the nearby Currambene Creek. Karen was not having a happy time. Her tooth was still hurting, the unpleasant conditions were upsetting her, and she had gone into "dawdle mode". Whenever Karen is forced to do something she would prefer not to, she dawdles. She takes her time, moves slowly and is generally a real pain in the arse. My attitude is the opposite. We are stuck with it, we only have ourselves to get us out of it, so let's put in a bit more effort and get it over with. Why prolong the agony?

Nevin had told us there were no major obstacles between Braidwood and Cooma, but he was a car driver. We knew better, and had pointed out a small detail on the topographic map he had displayed, a little matter of a mountain called Snowball, almost thirteen hundred metres high, with the red line of the road snaking its way up and around its contours. With the rain continuing unabated, we began the long, slow pedal up the hill. The mist enfolded us as we progressed upwards, the rain found access down the backs of our necks, muddy water sprayed up from our wheels, and sweat built up in the close conditions and soaked us to the skin despite our Gore-Tex rain jackets. The mountain and its lush forests protected us from the wind while the physical effort involved in the climb kept us warm. Karen and I chatted comfortably as we cycled onward, sticking to the high side of each corner where the going was more firm. Traffic was almost non-existent, with only an occasional car appearing through the mist to force us onto the correct side of the road. For over an hour we ground our way upwards. We finally crested the rise - seven long kilometres after the climb had begun.

The road made its way along the top of an exposed ridge for a few kilometres before beginning a twenty kilometre descent. Conditions changed immediately. We no longer had any protection from the wind, and once we began the gradual descent and could finally coast, we lost the warmth provided by our exertion as well. After a few kilometres Karen and I discussed the conditions, deciding that if we got any colder, we would stop wherever we were, put up the tent wherever we could find a flat spot, get out of the wind and our wet clothes and climb into our sleeping bags as soon as possible. One by one, Karen's fingers were losing their circulation and turning a pale yellow colour as her Reynard's Phenomenon began to take effect.

We stopped for a lunch break, primarily to warm our insides with cups of coffee and tea, and to warm our hands on the cups at the same time. The rain kept falling. We gobbled down some fruit cake, not wanting to waste time with a normal, time-consuming lunch, but still needing quick nourishment. A passing car splashed Karen with mud, but she did not react until a few seconds later when a second car travelling about one hundred metres behind the first splashed her again. Such was the sluggishness of her thinking and reactions.

The rain had turned the road surface to sludge, forcing us to pedal hard on both the flats and the downhills. It was also a struggle to keep the bikes upright, but the extra effort did help to warm us up. By the time the rain stopped about half an hour later, the threat of hypothermia had passed. We quickly headed for a patch of blue sky visible further down the valley. After another half an hour we were cycling in sunshine. Not longer after, we removed our rain jackets, and Karen even applied some sunscreen! Fifty five kilometres into the day, the twenty kilometre downhill finally came to an end and we climbed in bright sunshine up to Countegany. Turning westward, we hurtled down some great hills into Numeralla. Eight more kilometres of dirt saw us arrive at Ted and Val's front door, after eighty two very tough kilometres.

The Numeralla River valley

In the late afternoon sun, we sorted out our mud spattered gear, finding most of it drenched due to thin and ripped garbage bags which had not been replaced for a long, long time. Val cooked us a wonderful baked dinner, the first we had eaten in at least a year. When we fell into real beds with real sheets and real blankets later in the evening, we looked back on the last three days with satisfaction. We felt we had taken everything that nature could throw at us, and handled it without too much trouble at all. We had endured heat, dehydration, hundreds of kilometres of dirt road, strong headwinds, cold, rain and the early symptoms of hypothermia, and we had come through it all virtually unscathed and with our enthusiasm intact.

The day coming down Snowball would be the coldest riding we would do in all our travels, though we would have colder nights, especially one just south of Coober Pedy. That particular night, however, still lay a long way ahead of us ...

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