Three Years on the Road
Brett Davis

55. The Keys to the City

Wherever we have ridden in Australia, there has never been a time when the scene around us was rubbish free. No matter how pristine an area appears, a moment's inspection will always reveal a discarded bottle, or a can, or piece of paper. The east coast highways are notorious for the amount of broken glass they support, which had been a constant worry for touring cyclists like Karen and myself. It is so unnecessary, and so infuriating! The political party I had planned on the boring stretch of the Stuart Highway a few days before would definitely have a policy on cleaning up Australia's highways. A Work-for-the-Dole could encourage every one of our half million unemployed citizens to spend one day a week cleaning up one kilometre of roadside. We could then clean up thirteen million kilometres of roadside every year - which would be equivalent to cleaning up the entire length of Highway One twice a day. The unions could not complain that the work should be done by their members because nobody is doing the work at all right now. It would motivate people to genuinely look for alternative employment, it would be environmentally friendly, and it would be a boon to our tourism industry.

Not that all the rubbish was unwelcome. In fact, it was a regular source for most of the magazines we read. These were always a bonus, especially up through the centre of Australia when towns and distractions were a long, long way apart. Karen and I have read many an article from a found magazine, and have done quite a few cryptic crosswords from them as well. We have also looked at lots of pictures in the magazines we found on the side of the road, most of which have probably been lost by the drivers of long distance transport vehicles. Before we embarked on the trip we had never realised that so many truckies are students of anatomy and gynaecology!

Another major windfall for us - though we did not know it at the time - happened during the sixty seven kilometres we rode between Edith Falls and Copperfield Dam. Just after a morning tea break - when we were really belting along with a good breeze behind us down a long hill - I spotted a bunch of keys on the shoulder of the road. We rode right past, and for the next one hundred metres I had a very quick mental discussion with myself about whether I should stop or not. For me, "should" is a magic word. If I am convinced that I should do something, I do it. With the wallet I had found in South Australia, I had said to myself that I really should take it back to its owner intact, so I did. With the keys I had just seen, I convinced myself that I should stop and investigate. So I did, telling Karen I was just going back up the road to pick up something I had seen. She probably figured it was just another dirty magazine.

There were about thirty or more keys in the bunch, on about three or four small key-rings all daisy chained together. Only two clues separated the bunch of keys from anonymity. One was a key with "Darwin Locksmiths" embossed on its face, while the other was a small, plastic tag with two words written on it in very light pencil - "Raymond's Restaurant." No addresses, no telephone numbers. One of the keys was a magnetic security key as well, so we guessed they might be important. I stuffed them into my handlebar bag and set off in pursuit of Karen.

The caffeine from the coffee she had consumed at the morning tea break must have been coursing madly through Karen's bloodstream because I had the devil's own time trying to catch up with her. When I eventually drew level, and my heart rate and breathing had settled down enough to talk coherently, I showed Karen the keys and we discussed our options. We decided to look for Raymond's Restaurant in a phone book the next time we reached civilisation. In the meantime, we had some riding and camping to do.

Copperfield Dam provides the water supply for Pine Creek. It is reached after three kilometres of dirt road which leaves the highway to the south of the town, the first half shaking the hell out of us with its corrugations, and the second half scaring us silly because of the sharp rocks embedded into its surface. The dam would have to be excellent to make amends for the shocking road which led to it. Luckily, it was good. Dam good. Sorry.

A deserted camping ground near the dam was very ordinary, with sites consisting of long grass and rocks on the side of a hill. Down near the water, however, a small landscaped area with flat, manicured lawns, a sandy beach and a few picnic tables looked much more inviting. It would make the perfect spot for an overnight camp, if we ignored the no camping signs and the three bus-loads of screaming kids who frolicked in the water and annoyed other travellers on the shore.

Karen at Copperfield Dam

Karen and I have avoided having children in our own lives, but in the wider world we have come into contact with them almost continually. Like all pack animals, they tend to be more dangerous in groups and far more easy to manage in isolation. The buses soon left, taking the juvenile terrorists with them and leaving only Karen and me and one other group, a family of three. While her parents were swimming and playing on a pontoon about thirty metres out from the shore, their little girl paddled at the water's edge. Karen was soon in the water, swimming effortlessly out into the centre of the dam. As I made my way into the water to join her, the little girl shot a question at me.

"Who's that girl?" she asked, pointing towards Karen.
"That's my wife," I replied.
"That's my mummy over there, swimming. Has your wife had children?"
"No, not yet."
"Why not?"
"She hasn't wanted to have children yet."
"My mummy has. Can your wife have them?"
"As far as I know she can."
"So she's still got her tubes in then?"
The question stopped me in my tracks. "Er, yes. How old are you?"
"Four. I'm just learning to ride my pushbike!"

After our swim, Karen and I moved our gear to a table in the corner of the picnic area where we read, swam and birdwatched for the rest of the afternoon. A few people came and went, but by the early evening we were on our own. We did not set up the tent for fear of being asked to leave should a ranger appear, deciding instead to sleep under the stars on the flat grass of the picnic area.

The sleeping out in the open experiment was a mini-disaster. On the positive side, we did get to see a good variety of wildlife that would have gone unnoticed had we been inside a tent. We watched a Tawny Frogmouth - a close relative of the owls - moving about the picnic area, and a little later had distant views of another nocturnal bird - the Bush Stone Curlew. A ring-tailed possum also happened along, passing with three feet of Karen on its way to investigate our cooking equipment.

On the negative side however, were hordes of mosquitoes which forced us inside our inner sheets where we sweltered, and an early morning dew that made all our sleeping gear very damp. In the morning we hung our sleeping bags, sheets and pillows out to dry for an hour and a half, which meant a very late start to the day.

We breezed into Pine Creek six kilometres later needing to pick up some water. We had deliberately decided not to fill up at Copperfield Dam because the road back out to the highway was so rough we wanted to be carrying as little weight as possible. Unfortunately, nobody had warned us about Pine Creek water.

Along the Stuart Highway, a lot of the water we drank came from bores, wells and purification plants of unknown quality, although some locations had proudly proclaimed the excellence of their water. One roadhouse in the Territory advertised "the best water on the Stuart Highway", failing to mention that its water could be pretty bad and still be the best along that particular stretch of road. Another had claimed water "as good as Adelaide." We did not know whether to take this as a recommendation, or a warning.

We had to be careful even in relatively large towns, and we always asked the locals whether the water from their taps was okay to drink. In Pine Creek we were warned by a shopkeeper that some taps in the park across the street were for watering the grass only and contained recycled sewerage. We were also told that nobody drank the "good" town water either, and that most people used bottled water only. Figuring that the town water was from Copperfield Dam anyway, and we had been drinking that all day, Karen and I took our chances with the town water. After drinking anything and everything for over two thousand kilometres of the Stuart Highway, we had adopted the philosophy that whatever does not kill us makes us stronger.

Most of the water we drank on the Stuart Highway was bore water, and mineralised to a greater or lesser degree. When boiled, these impurities tended to be deposited on the inside of our kettle. When we eventually reached Darwin, our kettle looked like a miniature version of the Great Barrier Reef, with beautiful coral formations of many colours decorating its interior.

We drank Pine Creek water for another forty kilometres before stopping for lunch at the Emerald Springs roadhouse where we set up our groundsheet on some grass in the shade of a water tank beside the roadhouse dam. As we munched away on our cheese and crackers, cucumber and carrot, we watched a blue cattle dog walk down to the water and then do something that completely amazed us. At first I thought it would have a drink and go about its business, but it walked straight into the water. Well look at that, we thought, a dog going for a swim by himself. This in itself is fairly unusual, but then something incredible happened. The dog began to do laps! It swam around in a circle about five metres across, returning to the point where it had entered the water, but then went around again, and again. It eventual swam for about five minutes, and must have completed about twenty laps, then it climbed out of the water, had a good shake, walked up to the lawn near where we were sitting, had a long roll on the grass to dry off, then trotted away. It was one of the most human actions I have ever seen a dog perform, and was made even more remarkable because it was entirely self motivated.

The road from Emerald Springs to Hayes Creek cut through some really interesting country, with hills, gullies and mesas abounding. It also trended downhill, and with a following breeze we hooted along. At Hayes Creek we caught up with a couple of American cycle tourers we had seen leaving Emerald Springs. They had cycled up the east coast from Melbourne and across to the Stuart Highway before heading north for Darwin. They soon pushed on towards Douglas Hot Springs, leaving us to book a camping site for the night in the grassy caravan park below the roadhouse. The facilities were basic but the scenery was good, across a plain of long grass stretching to the tree-lined creek set against a backdrop of rocky hills.

Karen and I were soon cooling off in the shallow waters of Hayes Creek, watching wrens doing the same a little ways downstream. Above us towered some huge mango trees, unfortunately not in fruit.

We treated ourselves to a hamburger and a beer at the combined roadhouse and pub, and while we were there we also checked out the Northern Territory telephone book. Coming from a major population centre like Sydney where the telephone listings run to two massive directories, we found it an amusing revelation to discover that all of the personal listings and business listings for the entire Northern Territory can be found in one, small telephone book. This certainly made our search for Raymond's Restaurant a whole lot easier. We discovered that it was in Darwin.

Karen rang the restaurant to let its owners know that we had found some keys we believed belonged to them, and to tell them that they did not need to start changing all their locks. The manager on the line thought that some keys had been lost a week earlier, and that if the keys proved to belong to the restaurant, he would shout us a free meal. We explained we were travelling on pushbikes and that we would not be in Darwin for a few days, but promised to drop the keys off as soon as we could.

We retired early in preparation for a long day, rising at dawn to be on the road by eight o'clock. The terrain was growing increasingly more lush, the trees a brighter shade of green and interspersed with palms. There were no obvious places to stop for morning tea, so we continued on to arrive at the town of Adelaide River shortly before 11am with fifty seven kilometres behind us. The main street was crawling with truckloads of army personnel, but we soon realised it was not our army, but a detachment from one of the south-east Asian countries like Malaysia or Indonesia. They let us roll out of town so we figured that Australia had not been invaded. We assumed that there was some sort of military exercise taking place in the Top End.

At a little over ninety kilometres we turned off the highway along a dusty dirt road which led to Lake Bennett. We lunched at the kiosk at the head of the man-made lake, paid for a campsite and rode a further kilometre and a half to the other side of the lake, the extra distance taking us to a one hundred kilometre day. We set up the tent beside a couple of relocatable homes. An entrepreneur was trying to establish Lake Bennett as a resort village, where people could purchase cheap homes on waterfront land with fishing, swimming and boating right at their door. From what we saw, the idea was not catching on too quickly, possibly because of the hordes of mozzies that swarmed out of the lake at dusk.

Lake Bennett

Possibly the most dangerous situation in which we ever found ourselves occurred at Lake Bennett. A few itinerant workers were camped elsewhere around the lake, but they decided they would have a party on the porch of the relocatable home right next door to us. Karen and I went over to say hullo, knowing that we would be safer if they knew us than if we tried to avoid them. It seemed the right thing to do, especially when one of the guys asked if he could borrow a sewing needle from us. Anyone concerned about doing some sewing was not likely to be too concerned with violence, we thought. Unfortunately, we soon discovered that the guy wanted the needle so he could punch a series of holes in a beer can and use it as a bong!

We declined their invitation to join them in drinks and drugs, and returned to our tent to prepare dinner. Before long the party had degenerated into a drunken rap session on the evils of the world. Luckily for us, they had started drinking early in the afternoon, and by the time it got dark they were too drunk to harm anyone, apart from themselves. It was a very stoned and highly inebriated bunch of semi-ferals who climbed into their dinghy and motored off into the night as the mozzies massed for their attack.

It did not take long for the mozzies to drive us to the shelter of our tent where we remained for the rest of the night listening to their irritating whining. They were just as prevalent in the morning so we were soon on our way. The day was hot, a typical tropical stinker, with a hot breeze in our faces. Traffic was heavy. The further north we rode, the more the land opened out and little bits of civilisation started popping up everywhere.

Morning tea was taken at a table outside the Noonamah roadhouse after forty five kilometres. Our mixture of peanuts and chocolate-coated nuts had turned into rocky road, but we ate it anyhow. Two significant events occurred at the Noonamah roadhouse. The first was the opening ceremony of the Atlanta Olympics, briefly glimpsed while walking through the bar of the pub on the way to the toilet, and the other was a phone call.

We had two phone calls to make - the first to a guy named Mark with whom I had played hockey in Sydney. We had last seen him almost eighteen months earlier when we had ridden our bikes from our home to the home of Karen's parents - only a few days before we had first cycled out of Sydney. Unfortunately, there was no answer on his mobile phone. The second call was to the family we had met on the road eleven months earlier in northern Queensland.

Louise and Neville and their two kids had been holed up in a caravan park in Cardwell awaiting the arrival of relatives when we had first met them near the end of the Noosa-to-Cairns leg of our cycle trip. They had looked after our bikes for five days while Karen and I walked the Thorsburn track on nearby Hinchinbrook Island. We had then exchanged phone numbers and addresses, a tragic error for them because now Karen was ringing them to ask if they could put us up for couple of days. After a brief conversation, they agreed.

With the news that we had a place to stay for the night, we rode strongly. The highway turned into an expressway with a good, wide shoulder. A little further along, at Palmerston, we spotted a McDonalds, an establishment not seen since Adelaide and not visited since Mount Gambier! We each only had a thirty cent ice-cream though, having finished lunch not long before.

Not too much later a sign greeted us with "Welcome to Darwin" and Karen and I took turns to photograph the other beneath it. We turned off the highway to one of the eastern suburbs and called into a shopping centre to buy both soft drink and hard - the latter in the form of champagne to commemorate a few milestones like getting to the end of another major leg, reaching Darwin, crossing the continent and totalling ten thousand kilometres of riding.

Reaching Darwin (a montage of two photos)

As we entered the Darwin suburbs, I began doing some mental arithmetic. In the year and a half since Karen and I had first left Sydney to cycle north, we had taken four months to ride to Cairns and five months to reach Darwin, a total of nine months. Now nine months is about two hundred and seventy five days. Assuming half of these were actual riding days, we therefore rode on one hundred and thirty eight days. Now, if each day we averaged four hours of riding, this means we only rode for one sixth of one hundred and thirty eight days, which is equivalent to twenty three full days, twenty fours hours a day, every day.

Then I realised that there was another way of looking at this. We had now ridden almost ten thousand kilometres at an average speed of about twenty kilometres per hour, which means we had been riding for five hundred hours. Five hundred hours divided by twenty four is about twenty one days. The two results are roughly the same. After arriving at these conclusions I told Karen what I was thinking. She immediately started riding faster to get away from the crazy man behind her.

As mentioned earlier, the last week of the Darwin leg of the trip had been closely associated with water. Since staying in the town of Katherine, we had camped at Katherine Gorge, Edith Falls, Copperfield Dam, Hayes Creek and Lake Bennett. In keeping with the aquatic theme, when we reached the home of Louise and Nev, Karen and I celebrated with a swim in their pool.

We had planned an even bigger celebration, with dinner in a classy restaurant and a decent bottle of expensive wine. With this in mind, Karen and I soon bussed into the city and took the keys we had found north of Katherine to Raymond's Restaurant. We were dressed very casually and were carrying day-packs, which seemed totally inappropriate for the classy establishment we entered, even for Darwin, which is a fairly laid-back city. We showed the keys to the owner. He told us that none of his employees had lost any keys, and that they appeared to belong to a security company, possibly the one responsible for the restaurant, possibly not. So much for the free lunch, we thought, but we were wrong. The owner thanked us for our trouble and produced a card, writing on the back that we were entitled to a free meal any time we liked.

A few days later we availed ourselves of their offer and had a superb, three-course lunch. We even paid for a "good" bottle of wine - as opposed to the rubbish we normally drank - which cost us more than we would usually spend on an entire meal. Karen and I had been planning a big celebration for Darwin, and we could not have found a nicer restaurant with better food or service anywhere in the entire Top End.

It was the perfect way to celebrate crossing the continent.

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