So who are we? And why were we leaving our home, our jobs, our friends and our families to travel around Australia on pushbikes? Were we stupid? Or crazy? Or both? To be totally honest, there are definite doubts about our sanity. Being privy to my own thoughts, I know that I am pretty strange, but Karen has actually proven her insanity - she married me!
Karen is not your average female. She has the spirit of an adventurer, the stamina of a marathon runner, the physique of an athlete, and the look of a librarian. Halfway through her teens, Karen had experienced a major turning point in her life when she was introduced to the scouting movement. She had joined the Venturers and loved it, revelling in all of the outdoor activities, like camping, hiking, sailing, canoeing, cycling, abseiling and caving. After Venturers came Rovers, and along the way Karen became a Queen Scout and even spent a year or two as a Cub Leader. She also began a fitness regime that has continued to the present day - jogging on the beach, cycling to school or work, and swimming laps in the local ocean pools.
At first, Karen attempted to choose a job which would allow her to harness her love of nature and hard physical activity. She considered becoming a cartographer, and even tried out for the police force, passing all the entrance requirements for the latter only to withdraw at the last moment. I suspect that Karen may have received a fair amount of pressure and advice from her accountant father to follow a less adventurous career path. "Make sure you have a good, solid qualification behind you first before you go gallivanting around the countryside making maps or being a policewoman."
Karen followed the advice and seemed destined for a normal life. She was one of the unpopular intelligentsia at high school and university, often placing first in her class, and she graduated with an honours degree in Business, majoring in Accounting. She then got a job as an accountant, and looked certain to follow the family tradition.
Somewhere in her ancestry, however, there lurked some adventurous genes, and Karen soon yearned for more than debits and credits and general ledgers. In the early eighties the travel bug gave Karen a bit of a nip, and she journeyed to Kashmir for a trek. She then settled down for a time, working as an accountant for Roche, the multinational pharmaceutical company. It was there that she met me. Later in the decade Karen's travel bug came out of hibernation and bit her again, so she was off to Europe, backpacking around the continent for eight months, leaving behind her job, her family, and me. When Karen returned, her travel bug temporarily sated, I caught her at a vulnerable moment and we married. Shortly after, Karen got another job, again as an accountant, but this time with Coca-Cola.
For five years her travel bug lay dormant, kept under control with holidays to New Zealand, Nepal and Queensland, and with weekends spent hiking, biking, canoeing and swimming. But the bug was merely using these tasty titbits to get its strength back. When it bit again, it would bite with a vengeance.
At Coca-Cola, Karen rose to a position of some authority, but she could see that the next rung up the organisational ladder was not for her. Also, if she stayed in her current position she would be hindering the rise of those under her. The company, however, was offering great temptations to stay, with a salary and benefits package that most people would have great difficulty walking away from. Then came a stock options offer. Karen realised that if she did not get out soon, she might be trapped forever.
I, on the other hand, have skin impervious to the bite of travel bugs. I have always been a rat-bag, a disappointment to my mother and a definite under-achiever. I was a bright kid, well liked by all, and a talented sportsman. I could have gone far in cricket, soccer, tennis, golf or athletics, but I lacked drive and direction. I could never envision a life devoted to only one thing, even if it would make me incredibly successful in my chosen field. During my early school life, and with very little effort, I was always at or near the top of the class. Later on, when I actually had to work hard at studying, I was content to drift along with easy passes, rather than difficult distinctions. I crammed for exams, passed comfortably, and even received scholarships that would lead me to university. At the age of twenty my pivotal moment came when a door-to-door insurance salesman asked me what I had planned for the rest of my life. It hit me like a bombshell. I realised I had never really thought about it before, so I dropped out of university and went in search of myself.
Returning home a few years later after a season of fruit picking and a long stint spent working in a car plant in Adelaide making Valiants, Galants, Centuras and Chargers, I had not found any answers to life's big questions. Twenty years later I still had no idea. During those two decades I worked at a couple of long term, mundane jobs, not wanting to waste my energies at work when there was so much to do and learn outside in the real world.
In 1986 I met Karen at Roche. At the time I was a finance clerk, though I later moved into the computer division as an operator, and rose to a supervisory position. Although Karen was engaged at the time, to a really wonderful guy we both agree is a much nicer person than I am, Karen must have recognised me as a kindred spirit and she soon left her fiance. Despite a couple of early hiccups our relationship flourished and we soon vowed to stay together forever. We must have both realised that if we went our separate ways and became involved with others, we risked ruining the lives of two totally innocent people. We were married on a beach called Summercloud Bay, barefoot, in the company of a few close friends and relatives less than three months after Karen's return from Europe.
A couple of years later my job was destroying me. I liked the people I worked with, and the work was okay, but I hated the time I had to devote to it. I found myself virtually on call twenty four hours a day, without a life, and realised that I had to get out. The onset of middle age, however, had given me an appreciation of the stability and security that a job provides. It had also given me a fear of the unknown.
I had not always been like that. I recalled arriving in Mildura when I was twenty, with no job, no money, no place to stay, and absolutely no worries about my situation. With my last forty cents I had bought some hot chips, slept in the back of the car, applied for a job as a grape picker the next morning, got a job by lunchtime, and by evening had worked for four hours and received an advance on my wages. Twenty years later, I found it difficult to believe I had lived like that, and I realised that the thought of doing something similar now was appalling. It was because of that realisation that I decided to quit my job and go travelling around the country again.
Once I admit to myself that I have a fear, I always face up to it, so when I realised that I was afraid of leaving my job, afraid of the unknown and afraid of the lack of security, my decision to quit work and start travelling had already been made. I asked myself what is worse - not knowing where you will be or what you will be doing tomorrow, or knowing exactly where you will be and what you will be doing every day for the rest of your life?
So there we were, Karen the thirty three year old accountant, with a rampaging travel bug, slowly becoming trapped in a gilded cage and me, forty one, staring a mid life crisis squarely in the face and desperate for anything other than my current job. At roughly the same time, a business acquaintance of mine died of a heart attack, leaving a wife and a couple of kids. He was not much older than me, and had been working hard and planning to retire at fifty. Karen and I decided to live our lives now while we were are able, rather than wait for a time that might never come. With that thought in mind, we were like a bomb waiting to go off. All we needed was someone to light the fuse. This was the moment when Dick Smith came along.
Dick Smith originally made his fame and fortune with his electronics shops, but had channelled his money into the Australian Geographic magazine. He had long been one of my heroes. He did what he wanted to do and did not let anything or anybody get in his way. A key feature of his magazine was the Wilderness Couples. A few years earlier Dick Smith had selected a volunteer couple to live for a year in the Kimberley's in the remote north of Western Australia. At the end of the year, after keeping their contact with the rest of civilisation to a minimum, the couple wrote an article about their adventures, and a book and video were also produced. Australian Geographic was now calling for volunteers again, this time for a year in the wilds of western Tasmania. Karen and I talked it over, and decided to apply. We sent away a letter describing ourselves and our situation, and waited.
A couple of months later, having almost forgotten about the application, I answered the phone one afternoon, and a guy on the other end said "Hi, my name is Dick Smith". To this day I wish that Dick Smith's mother had more imagination. If she had called her son Englebert Smith I would have recognised the name right away, but it went right over my head and I answered with the incredibly brilliant reply of "Yeah?" I feel sure that if I had identified the caller immediately, Karen and I would have become the new wilderness couple, but when Dick Smith had to explain who he was, our chances plummeted. He and I spoke for about fifteen minutes, my Andy Warhol "fifteen minutes of fame", and I probably blew the interview too, because another couple was eventually chosen.
We were not too heartbroken, however. Karen suffers from a condition known as Reynard's Phenomenon, in which blood circulation to her extremities stops when she becomes cold. And in Karen's case, they do not have to get very cold at all. Loss of normal colour is one of the initial symptoms when the blood stops flowing, and Karen's fingers will turn yellow in a tepid swimming pool. When the blood starts flowing again, it is accompanied by a fair amount of pain. Karen's reaction to pain is to pass out. We were once standing in line waiting for a chair lift at the Perisher Valley ski fields one morning, surrounded by people, in bright sunshine, with the air temperature somewhere around zero. Karen was in the middle of complaining about her cold hands, caused by the inadequate insulating properties of her gloves, when her legs began to buckle beneath her. I grabbed her and almost had to carry her into the warmth of the ski centre where she lay down on a bench for ten minutes in order to remain conscious and restore her circulation. So when we later heard that we had missed out on spending a year in an area that has a reputation for cold, snow and three hundred days of rain annually, we had not been overly disappointed.
However, we had learned some interesting facts about the wilderness couples along the way, one of which is that although they receive some financial support, it is not an enormous amount, and most of their sponsorship has to be sought by the couple, personally. This prompted me to ask Karen a couple of questions. Firstly, if we were willing to give up our jobs to be the wilderness couple, and we would have had to raise most of the money for the exercise ourselves anyway, why not do it ourselves, without Australian Geographic and without Dick Smith? Secondly, why stay in one place for a year? Why not stay in twelve places for a month each? We wrote down a list of all the places in Australia we wanted to visit. The total came to twenty four. So why not stay for a month in twenty four different places, and take two years?
The figure of twenty four was significant. I was forty one years old, twenty four years away from the normal retirement age of sixty five. During those twenty four years, if I stayed in a job, I would receive twenty four months of annual leave. I reasoned that if I took two years off now, I would pack twenty four years of living into two years, and not postpone my life whilst waiting for a retirement that might never happen.
None of this answers the big question however. Why did Karen and I choose to travel around Australia on pushbikes? When we were discussing all the places in Australia that we would like to visit, I told Karen about a map of Australia I had on my bedroom wall when I was seven years old. I had marked it with the route I intended to take when I cycled around Australia sometime in the future. Karen was shocked, because she had always dreamed about cycling around Australia too. This coincidence could not be ignored, and from that moment on, as far as I was concerned, we would be travelling on pushbikes. Karen took a lot more convincing, but eventually agreed, especially when the logistics were worked out, and our financial situation examined.
Our finances were in good shape and we were in good shape. We had no children, and if we were ever to have children it would obviously be better to get the travelling done first. There was nothing to stop us. We could rent out our house, try to live off the rent and not touch our savings except for special occasions, and we could travel until we tired of it. So we decided that we would do it. Except for one small delay. Karen wanted to stay at Coca-Cola until her five years of service were completed. There were sound financial reasons for her decision, revolving around holiday pay and the payment of untaken sick leave, so I agreed that we should wait. Unfortunately, Karen's fifth anniversary with Coca-Cola was eleven long months away.
Undaunted, I went to work the next day and gave eleven months notice. Nobody was surprised, as I had been saying that I hated my job at least twice a day for the previous six months. Those eleven months really dragged, with time passing ever more slowly as the end of work approached. Just before time came to a complete halt, I left work prematurely, taking two months to get our house into a livable state for normal human beings. I also packed up our belongings and distributed them to friends and family for safekeeping. Photograph albums went to Karen's grandfather's unit, furniture to his garage, tools and books into a special storage area I constructed in the roof of our house, and important papers to Karen's accountant father who would be acting as tax agent, adviser, manager and point of contact for us while we were gone. We rented out our house, moved in with the Inlaws for a couple of weeks, and did the million and one things that needed to be done in order to get our show on the road. Karen worked right up until April 21st, four days before we cycled out of Sydney.
Shortly after we had made the decision to quit our jobs and travel, we purchased the bikes that would take us around Australia, the locally made Gemini World Randonneur. These bikes are especially designed for touring, and although they look much like racing bikes, tourers have a wider range of gears, more places to attach racks and packs and water-bottles, and slightly different frame angles to give a more comfortable ride. We chose the same model bike in order to eliminate the duplication of tools and spare parts that two different bikes would cause. Although the bikes were the same make, they were not the same size. Karen's bike was shorter, with classical lines, while mine was much taller, with a kind of gawky elegance. I decided to name my bike after a famous Australian supermodel. Karen was not too impressed, so in retaliation she named her bike after a famous Australian actor.
And so it came to pass that while I was riding Elle Macpherson around Australia, Karen would be straddling Mel Gibson.