Karen and I began our adventure on April 25th 1995 - Anzac Day - a public holiday when the people of Australia remember the men and women who died protecting this country and ensuring the freedom that we often take for granted. In retrospect, it was an appropriate day for us to be embarking on a journey that would enable us to discover exactly how fortunate we are to be living in such a big and beautiful country. At the time, however, the symbolic significance of Anzac Day never entered our heads. We had chosen it simply because it was a public holiday, giving all of our friends the chance to see us off, and hopefully providing less traffic for our first day out of the Big Smoke.
Packed and ready to go
Our journey started from the home of "the In-Laws", Karen's parents Kevin and Barbara. Our own home was now occupied by strangers, rented out on a one year lease. We had also given up our jobs, totally burning our bridges behind us to ensure our full commitment to the journey ahead.
Six months earlier we had completed our one and only test ride - a two day, one hundred and seventy four kilometre loop starting and finishing at Bulahdelah, a small town north of Newcastle. We survived the weekend fairly well, despite large sections of dirt road, hellish hills, an encounter with drunken hooligans at our tent-site late at night, and an unseasonally hot October day over thirty five degrees. The experience gained on that short tour helped enormously when it came to packing all the gear we would need for our comfort and survival in the months ahead.
There are two basic travel modes for cycle touring. The first is fast and expensive - travelling light, staying at pubs, motels, hostels and bed-and-breakfasts and dining out every night while the bank balance plummets. The second mode is slow and cheap - travelling heavy, laden with a tent, sleeping bags and mats, cooking gear, food, water, tools and spares, and camping at caravan parks or in the bush at the side of the road. We had chosen the latter mode, reasoning that if we could survive financially on the income generated by the rental of our house, we could travel indefinitely.
At 9am, unaccustomed to the weight of our fully-laden touring bikes, we wobbled up the driveway and out onto Rose Avenue. Karen's mum, Barbara, and brothers Gary and Peter, rode with us for moral support. Rather than tackle Highway One immediately, Karen and I had decided to make our way out of Sydney via the Barrenjoey Peninsula, taking a ferry from Palm Beach across Broken Bay to Patonga, and then travelling through the backroads of the Central Coast. We were joined by some of our friends on bikes during the first twenty kilometres to the Palm Beach wharf, where a host of other friends awaited us. Karen and I said our final goodbyes while we waited for the ferry, not knowing when (or if) we would see all of our friends again.
When the ferry arrived, we waited for the other passengers to board first before then man-handling the bikes down a short flight of steps and across a very narrow gang-plank onto the boat. The Inlaws and a couple of friends (George and Brigitte) boarded the ferry with us, but the others bade us farewell from the wharf. As the ferry pulled away, we were amused and touched by the sight of our friends throwing streamers and waving goodbye. It was like the farewell scene from "Titanic" - an analogy we hoped would not be prophetic.
Several of the passengers on the ferry questioned us about what we were doing and where we were headed. In the months ahead, this attention was to become very familiar to us. We had not realised how much of an oddity we would be, nor how many spontaneous conversations we would have with total strangers as a result. We had not imagined that so many people would find our journey so fascinating. This new found celebrity was totally unexpected, but not unwelcome. Today, when Karen and I asked about the highlight of our three years on the road, we answer without hesitation that the absolute highlight of the entire trip was the people we met and the friends we made.
If someone on that ferry had said to us that people we had not even met yet would be the best part of our travels, we would have thought them crazy. Yet there during the first couple of hours of our travels we had already begun to realise that what we expected from the trip might not be what it would actually provide.
At Patonga we picnic lunched in a park for a couple of hours, anxious to be on our way but reluctant to take that ultimate, irrevocable step. Then came the moment of truth, the final goodbyes, the handshakes, the kisses, and the realisation for Karen that this would be the last time she would see her parents for quite a while. As we rode off past Kevin's clicking camera and turned to wave for the last time, the emotions that Karen had been avoiding welled up inside her and the tears began to flow.
If I had known how long and steep the hill out of Patonga was, I would have been crying too.