Marla is a very small town on the Stuart Highway about one hundred and sixty kilometres south of the Northern Territory border. In other words, it is smack bang in the middle of nowhere. Facilities for travellers were excellent, with the roadhouse having motel accommodation as well as the traditional caravan park and camping ground out the back, a well stocked and surprisingly inexpensive supermarket, a service station, a post office, and the obligatory fast food restaurant and take-away. The campsites were well grassed and well maintained, and there was a shelter nearby with a light under which we could read at night. Combined with a couple of plastic chairs we re-located from the swimming pool enclosure, all of this added up to a relative heaven. If we had been forced to choose a place to get stranded, Marla would definitely have been on the list. Not near the top of the list admittedly, but not right at the bottom either.
Being stranded in Marla, however, was the last thing on our minds as we walked our bikes out to the highway and performed our usual check for thorns before heading north. It was a lovely day, with a nice southerly breeze behind us. Karen was setting a good pace in front. Within the first eight kilometres of the day, the scenery around us changed from pancake flat and boring, to an interesting vista of ranges and ridges. Then all thoughts about the landscape disappeared as my front tyre went flat, rapidly.
We stopped, and I lay Elle down on the shoulder of the road, took off her front wheel and removed the tube. A quick check revealed a cut in the rubber at the base of the valve. After replacing the tube with one of the two brand new spares I was carrying, fitting it onto the wheel, pumping up the tyre and fitting the wheel back onto the bike, we were on our way again. We had ridden a further two kilometres up the road when I flatted again, with the same symptom. It seemed that the edge of the hole in the rim was cutting the valve, but what had happened to cause this sudden change?
This time I patched the valve and sanded the edge of the hole in the rim, hoping this would fix the problem. The rim seemed the same as it had always been, a bit rough admittedly, but it had never cut the valves before. Sanding back the rough edge seemed to be the only solution. We took off again. Two more kilometres down the road I flatted again. This time the valve was almost completely severed from the tube!
Karen was a bit upset by this stage. Every time I had called out to her that my front tyre was flat, her groans had become progressively louder. We had a discussion about our situation. At the start of the day we had two spare tubes. We had travelled only twelve kilometres and were now putting our last undamaged tube into the tyre. It was about one hundred and seventy kilometres to the next roadhouse. We had no spare tubes left. We both agreed that the only logical decision was to ride back to Marla, and hope that all of our tubes survived the twelve kilometre return journey.
They didn't, quite. The tube in my front tyre lasted eight kilometres, which left me with a four kilometre push back into town. Karen pushed her bike as well, to keep me company. Back in Marla we discovered that there were no bicycle tubes to be had anywhere, so we visited the post office to look up the telephone numbers of cycle shops in Alice Springs. The lady behind the counter suggested that the quickest way to get our hands on the tubes was to ask the cycle shop to put them on the McCafferty's bus which delivered the mail every day. We rang Alice Springs and ordered four new tubes, but discovered that the daily bus had already left today. Tomorrow's bus would not arrive until late in the afternoon, so we would not receive the tubes for a day and a half. This assured us of another two nights in this totally forgettable town, with the worrying thought that we still had not figured out what was causing the tube problems.
The tyre had been used before for a couple of weeks with no apparent problems before being replaced by a tyre with a more robust tread. The hole in the rim looked smooth enough. Was I doing something wrong when installing the new tubes? Was I damaging the valves when pumping up the tyre, moving the valve back and forth and inadvertently slicing the rubber? Was there another reason for the damage that I was totally unaware of? Or was there a "Marla Triangle" into which poor, unsuspecting touring cyclists were constantly being lured, doomed to live out the remainder of their days in this god-forsaken backwater?
Problem solving was my life. When I had worked at Roche, I had supervised the operation of the Help Desk. Every time the phone rang, it was a user with a problem, always wanting an instant solution. It was time I put the problem solving skills I had learned at Roche into practice. One of the first questions asked when a problem occurred was "What has changed lately?" So I asked myself the same question and came up with two possible answers. Number one, I had changed the tyre. Number two, I had changed the way I was inflating the tyres because of the cracked pump - trying not to flex the pump casing and causing the crack to grow. Had either of these two things caused the problem? The tyre had been used before and seemed okay, but since it had last been on the bike I had twisted it into a couple of loops in order to store it more easily. Perhaps this had damaged it and this was somehow affecting the tube. I therefore decided that I would be extremely careful when fitting the new tube, and if the same problem recurred, I would then remove the cheap tyre, and replace it with the new Michelin.
Because of the trials and tribulations of the day, we splurged on dinner, buying a can of seafood to have with our rice and vegetables, and a cheesecake for dessert. During dinner under the light in the campground shelter, we met a pair of birdwatchers from Kansas, staying up late in discussions of what we had seen and where we had seen it. The late night would not be a problem. We knew we would not be going anywhere the next day.
We spent the day reading and relaxing. To break the monotony, we took a walk through the scrub near the start of the road to Oodnadatta looking for birds. As the scheduled arrival time for the bus drew nearer, both Karen and myself were silently praying that our tubes would be on board. If they weren't, we would be forced to stay in Marla another twenty four hours, at least. The bus was due at five o'clock. I forced myself to wait until the pips on my watch had sounded, then nervously walked out to the front of the complex. The bus had already arrived. I collected my package from the shop and calmly walked back to the tent. Karen had not even been aware that I had gone until I interrupted her reading with the words "They're here!"
I had ordered three normal tubes and one thorn-proof tube. The thorn-proof is much thicker and heavier than a normal tube, so I chose it to be the guinea pig. Never has a tube been more lovingly installed.
Our pump was cracked near the lever where it attaches to the tube. I had changed my pumping technique because of this, holding the end of the pump and the tube together, and leaving the tyre unsupported. This may have caused the rim to cut into the tube and cause all my problems, so I returned to my old technique of pumping up the tyre when it was lying on the ground. When I had finished I checked the rubber near the rim. No cuts! I put the wheel back onto the bike. We would find out in the morning if the problem had been fixed.
Later that evening, while devouring another cheesecake dessert, Karen and I shared our shelter with another group of travellers. We were speaking to them about our bike problems when one of them recalled having experienced an identical problem. He had been working for the PMG in Sydney, in the days when postmen rode heavy red pushbikes when delivering their letters. The post office had purchased a new batch of tyres. Shortly afterward postmen began complaining of cuts in the valves, or of valves being ripped off completely. After a few days the cause of the problem was found. The tyres were faulty, travelling around the rim and dragging the tubes around with them which wrenched out the valves. It sounded plausible, so as a precaution I took a pen and drew a couple of lines on the rim of my front wheel, extending them onto the tyre wall. If the tyre was travelling around the rim while we rode, a simple check of the lines would reveal it immediately.
The next morning we pushed our bikes out to the highway - about three hundred metres - and performed our usual tyre check, looking for the dreaded three-cornered jacks which are sometimes known as devil's heads. I also checked the marks I had made the night before, and found that the tyre had already travelled about five millimetres around the rim! The valve was pushed over at a forty five degree angle! There had to be something wrong with the tyre! I replaced it, marked the rim and tyre again, just to be safe, and we set off again. I stopped to check the marks at two hundred metres, at five hundred metres, and at one kilometre. They remained perfectly aligned. I continued to check - at five kilometres, and at ten. When the marks still had not moved after twenty kilometres, I knew that the problem had been solved. However, we still had four hundred and fifty kilometres to travel until we reached Alice Springs, and we were now carrying no useable spare tyres.
Karen was a bit concerned about our lack of a spare tyre.
"Aren't we asking for more trouble? Do you think we should keep riding, with no spare tyre?"
"Well, we could always stay in Marla for two more days while the tyres come down from Alice."
Neither of us wanted that.
"What the heck," Karen said. "Our tyres are all good now and we've got three spare tubes. Let's risk it to Alice."
On the trip to Cairns, allowing for two weeks of non-riding when we stayed at the unit in Noosa, and ten days when we were hiking on Fraser and Hinchinbrook Islands, we had averaged a tyre repair every eight and a half days. On the current trip the average was down to a repair every five days! One of the prime reasons for the difference in these averages was the number of tubes I destroyed at Marla.
With Marla and the tyre problem now safely behind us, Karen and I pushed on into slight headwinds through an increasingly interesting countryside dotted with hills, small ranges and mesas. The interruptions caused by the tyre change and subsequent checks delayed our morning tea until almost midday, with only forty three kilometres covered. We lunched at 2pm - eighty five kilometres - and continued riding until half past four, eventually finding some unfenced road with cover in some scrub well away from the highway. Our tent site was adjacent to a dusty cow trail. We hoped the cows would not trample us later in the night.
I rose at 5:30am for a last look at the comet, then returned to the tent until seven. Our next destination - Kulgera - was only sixty kilometres away, so Karen and I waited for the day to warm up before continuing up the road. The headwinds of yesterday were still with us, and with the highway tending upwards we laboured through a surprisingly long and tedious day.
The cow trail of the previous night and the fenced highway of the previous day had indicated that we had re-entered grazing country. A more annoying indication was the hordes of flies that mobbed us every time we stopped for a break. After forty one kilometres we were greeted at the Northern Territory border by a million flies who joined us for lunch. The scenery continued to improve as we pushed the final twenty kilometres into Kulgera. Having now left South Australia behind us, Karen and I agreed that the state possesses a few places of exceptional beauty, but when the scenery was being handed out, it must have been last in line.
Entering the Northern Territory
Upon our arrival in Kulgera I repaired yet another flat, this time a thorn puncture causing a slow leak in Karen's front tyre. We decided to dine at the roadhouse restaurant, even splurging on a bottle of chardonnay. We had lots to celebrate - the border crossing, one hundred days on the road on this leg of the trip, seven and a half thousand kilometres of riding altogether, and getting out of Marla.
Shortly before going to the restaurant, Karen and I watched a van pull up in the camping site next to our tent. The driver - a man of about sixty - got out of his vehicle and asked if it was okay for him and his wife to camp next to us.
"It's fine by me," I said, "as long as you don't get drunk and play loud music."
"Not much chance of that happening," he said.
Next day I found out he was a Seventh Day Adventist minister...