After the rest day in Port Macquarie, Karen and I continued northwards, taking the punt across the Hastings River and cycling the forty kilometres to Crescent Head via the dirt of the Maria River Road. We spent the afternoon and all of the next day in the company of Karen's brother Peter, and his son Joel. Peter had been with us when we had ridden out on our first day. Joel lived with his mother in Coff's Harbour, and Peter had travelled north on his motorbike to visit his son and to meet up with us again.
Joel and Peter
Most of the people we spoke with on our travels would prove to be older than ourselves. We had been unaware of the vast numbers of southern Australians who migrate north for extended periods during winter, especially retired people, with whom we identified more and more as time went on. But not all the people we met were old. Indeed, some of our most delightful conversations were had with children, and our first major talk with kids occurred at the pub in Crescent Head.
The day had been a wet one, and after Peter and Joel had left, the rain had bucketed down during an early dinner. We had retired to the pub, mainly for shelter, nursing a beer each while we watched the Canberra rugby league team beat North Sydney by twenty points to eighteen after overcoming an eighteen points to two deficit. Karen and I were dressed in our identical sloppy-joes, emblazoned with the Coca-Cola logo across the front, when two local kids approached and asked us if we were part of the Coca-Cola Classic, a professional cycling race which was making its way from Sydney to Brisbane. We were flattered, and sorry to disappoint them, but told them that it was a perfectly natural mistake for them to make. When we told them we were cycling around Australia instead, they seemed even more interested and hit us with a battery of questions, many of them highly original, impressing us with their intelligence and their grasp of the difficulties we were facing.
Luke, aged eight, and Belinda, aged eleven (almost twelve she insisted), pointed out their mother who sat amongst a group of about eight young adults, all smoking and drinking and swearing. The two kids then gave us a run-down on the comings and goings of their fathers, mother, aunties, mother's boyfriends, mother's boyfriend's brothers, auntie's boyfriends, and all their ages and where they lived and who lived with who, and who was doing what, and who was paying the rent, before Karen and I decided we had heard enough and retired to our tent for the night. Perhaps we were are too judgemental, but both Karen and I wondered if Luke and Belinda would ever be able to escape from the dead-end future that so obviously lay ahead of them.
Life on the road had been pretty tough up until this point. Apart from a couple of very short days, we had been plagued by hills and headwinds, but the next day, May eighth, would be a turning point, both in the conditions and in our attitudes. It began inauspiciously, with rain falling while Karen prepared breakfast and I packed up the tent, but the weather soon cleared to an overcast, but dry day. After seven kilometres of dirt we found ourselves in paradise on a beautiful stretch of deserted back-country road alongside the Belmore River. The road surface was smooth, the wind was behind us, the traffic was negligible, the river was scenic, the birds were singing, the bees were buzzing, God was in his heaven and all was right with the world! Even the trucks and noise of Highway One, when we reached it, could not dent our new found enthusiasm, with a good road-shoulder offering protection all the way to a lunch of burgers and cappuccinos in Macksville.
We rang the Inlaws and wished Barbara a happy birthday, and reminisced about this same day two years earlier in Nepal, when all three of us had climbed two thousand metres up a narrow stony path from a river valley to a spectacular mountain ridge, been caught out by a violent hail-storm along the way, and had then partied until late with music, entertainment and a birthday cake for Barbara provided by our wonderful porters and sherpas. After the phone-call, Karen and I rode a couple of kilometres north to a lovely caravan park by the Nambucca River where we set up camp for the night. We had travelled more than seventy kilometres in the morning, at a touch over twenty kilometres per hour, and had done it easily. We celebrated the ease of the day with a swim in the caravan park pool, and later had a lovely home-cooked meal in an exceptional undercover barbecue area complete with lights, fridge, boiling hot water and electric hot plate, all free. After dinner we retired to the games room where I watched Manly thrash the Bulldogs in a game of rugby league, while Karen wrote a letter to her former workmates at Coke.
I wrote a letter to my former workmates at Roche the next morning while waiting for the tent to dry. Drying the tent before packing it up in the morning, or spreading it out to dry at morning tea or lunch, would become a regular occurrence, because we could never be sure we would be able to dry the tent at the end of the day. A wet tent in the evening would mean damp sleeping mats overnight and damp sleeping bags next morning, with cold, uncomfortable nights as a result, so we made it a rule to ensure the tent always remained as dry as possible. Luckily, the material of the tent-fly was rapid drying. Fifteen minutes of sunshine would dry it completely. On days when we packed up a wet tent in the rain and the weather forecast made a drying time seem unlikely, we would pack the fly separately from the inner tent to ensure a dry home for the night.
Highway One was hilly so we diverted to the coast again via Hungry Head and the very pretty little seaside town of Urunga. While we were travelling we were looking for places we might like to live when the trip was over, and Urunga was added to the list. At this stage, the only other town on the list was Laurieton. After morning tea, we followed the Bellinger River up to Bellingen, where a former workmate of Karen's now lived. We rang Annette for directions to her property, discovering that she actually lived in Kalang, the next valley over. So it was up and over the ridge and down into the Kalang River valley for twenty very hilly kilometres, bringing the total distance for the day up to sixty five kilometres.
The five acre property was really cute, with the house and neighbouring bungalow built in a Chinese pagoda-like style. The toilet, reached after a short walk up a small hill behind the house, was a rustic, open air affair, with lovely views over the property and bordering creek. The Bellingen area is similar in many ways to the Nimbin and Byron Bay areas, with a large population of alternate lifestylers, hippies, druggies, ferals or dole bludgers, depending on your viewpoint. Annette, her husband Peter and her son Rory seemed to have embraced country living with open arms, but we were to learn later that all was not wonderful in paradise and that they would soon return to the city.
Peter, Rory and Annette at Kalang
After an old style afternoon tea, complete with scones and jam, we socialised until the evening when we were treated to gin and tonic appetisers, a dinner of spinach, potato pie and red wine, and an apple crumble dessert. At the end of the evening, Karen and I retired to the guest quarters in the bungalow for a great night's sleep, to awaken the next morning to the sound of birdsong and sunlight filtering through the open doorway overlooking the garden.
Karen outside the bungalow
We spent a rest day exploring the area, birdwatching in some gentle morning rain and visiting the local community hall. Another excellent home-cooked meal was had that night - spaghetti bolognaise washed down with some home-brewed beer. The highlight of day was the number of new birds we sighted - about a dozen.
We left our hosts in the middle of the next morning, retracing our path through the hills to Bellingen and narrowly avoiding a red-bellied black snake as it crossed the road only a metre in front of our wheels. Vallery and Bonville came and went before sixteen kilometres of Highway One brought us to Coff's Harbour.
Our watch alarms woke us at 6am the next morning, ready for a long day to Grafton. Just as we were preparing to leave the caravan park, I noticed my front tyre bulging and shredding, so we rode to a local bike shop, bought a new tyre which I fitted immediately, and hit the road at 9am. A guy in the bike shop advised us that the road to Grafton was good, but we soon discovered that while the shoulder was wide enough, its surface was rough. Combined with a couple of good hills, with one over a small coastal range displaying a height of one hundred and ten metres, the rough road slowed us down a mite. We stopped at the Sikh mosque in Woolgoolga for the obligatory photo before slugging out to the Halfway Creek truck stop for a big truckies lunch of burgers and chips. It was here that we met some travellers in a Brits-Australia van, who explained that they were delivering it from Brisbane to Sydney at a much reduced rental rate. This meeting would only become significant to us two and a half years later!
Karen outside the Sikh Mosque at Woolgoolga
The long and narrow two-lane bridge into Grafton is totally unsuitable for pushbikes so, remembering our near fatal experience on the Stockton Bridge, Karen and I occupied the entire lane and caused quite an extensive traffic jam behind until after we had crossed the bridge. By the time we reached a brand new caravan park about four kilometres out of town, we had clocked eighty nine kilometres, easily our longest day so far. We would not surpass this distance for another two months.
Thick fog did not clear until 9:30am the next morning. We rode to Maclean via backroads along the Clarence River and a punt at Laurence. For five magic minutes during the morning we watched a pair of Brahminy kites scouring the cane-fields for prey as we paralleled their course, and a short time later spotted the first jabiru (black-necked stork) of our travels. Maclean was a very pretty, Scottish styled town, but the caravan park was rather uninviting. When Karen and I rode through to check it out, a bearded, long haired, and heavily tattooed guy was busy practising his whip cracking on the roadway outside of his caravan. That was slightly disturbing, so we rode right out again, quickly.
We lunched atop a scenic hill on the outskirts of town, a very steep scenic hill that had us tacking back and forth up its wide approach road. After a visit to another local scenic attraction, the never-before-heard-of-but-no-doubt-famous Balancing Rocks, we visited an information centre where we saw a brochure for caravan park at Woombah, just across the river. At this point however, the Clarence is about seven kilometres wide - a delta of swampy channels and low islands traversed by the highway.
At the caravan park we had light provided by a permanent resident who set up a spotlight for us with power provided by two extension cords running from his caravan. We swam in the pool, had a dinner of salmon and mushroom with onions and garlic, and a Sara Lee carrot cake dessert with ice-cream. Karen was complaining of a few lower back problems so I moved her seat forward a little. During the entire trip I don't think we ever got Karen's riding position exactly right, though we tried a variety of settings and postures.
A bad hair day at Woombah Caravan Park
White-browed babblers watched us depart the next morning. We stopped for morning tea at New Italy where we talked to an old hobo who was still trying his best to look dapper despite the smell and dirt that came from sleeping in his clothes. A resident family of blue-faced honeyeaters was doing a booming business in crumb-begging from the tourists that frequented the rest area. The wind was again at our backs and the riding was good - so good that we passed by a couple of places we had been considering as overnight accommodation.
At seventy eight kilometres we called it a day, celebrating our arrival in Ballina with two ice-creams each at Maccas. We followed the Kerry Saxby walkway and excellent bike paths to a riverside caravan park and dined on a can of spaghetti and meatballs, with fruit and custard for dessert. The campers kitchen was at the furthest point of the park away from the camping area, something we would encounter at many parks, but it did have a television, a microwave, good lights and tables, so we had no reason to complain.
The threat of rain prompted us to pack up early the next morning, and after a quick tour of the lookouts over Ballina (with the cemetery having the best view), we headed north for a short day through Lennox Head to Byron Bay. We wasted no time in visiting the lighthouse on Cape Byron, the most easterly point in mainland Australia and the first major milestone for our trip! In addition, our computers showed a total distance of one thousand and two kilometres, so obviously, a celebration was called for. We booked into a caravan park and left our bikes in their shed, and walked into town for an Indian dinner and red wine. Afterwards, we found a pub and watched a State of Origin rugby league match over a few beers.
Karen at Cape Byron
For some strange reason I awoke with a hangover the next day and shortly thereafter decided today would be a rest day. While I slept it off, Karen spent a couple of hours reading. When I finally surfaced, my punishment was a load of washing while Karen shopped in town. The afternoon and evening were spent writing letters, before dining at a sheltered barbecue area overlooking the beach, with entertainment during dinner provided by a bandicoot and a native mouse.
Heavy rain during the night was still falling at dawn. To atone for my slackness of the previous day, I convinced Karen that a run along the beach and a swim in the rain would be just the tonic we needed. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but newly developed calf muscles that had never run before would complain loudly about their treatment for the next few days. We left Byron in mid morning, with rain still threatening.
While passing through Brunswick Heads, we phoned home and Barbara told us some good news - a lease had been signed for the Southport house. The tenants would occupy the house in ten days, by which time our solicitors would have completed the settlement. Because the rent we would receive would be only slightly greater than the loan repayments we would make, we were not relying on the income from the house for our day to day living expenses, but it was still a good feeling to know that the purchase and tenancy was almost finalised. All of the paperwork would be completed the next day when we arrived at the real estate office and signed the lease and agent's agreement.
We had a look at the Brunswick Heads breakwater, the river, and the bridge and added the town to our list of nice places to live. We then continued on to Highway One, before turning off at Yelgun. We passed through Wooyung, battled along Mooball Beach into headwind, had lunch at a park in Pottsville with a pied butcherbird, and finished the day at Kingscliff. While setting up the tent near a retaining wall at the back of the caravan park, Karen and I heard a car accident on road above us. A guy had opened his door and had it ripped off by a passing car. Luckily, nobody was hurt. The other memorable thing about the caravan park was the hot showers - they were the best we had experienced since Sydney. Rain started at dusk and we spent a rather windy evening in a barbecue shelter with a tuna meal for dinner and a pack of chocolate cream biscuits for dessert.
The eighteenth of May was another milestone day for us. After admiring the views of Mt Warning as we rode out to Highway One, we headed for our first state border crossing at Tweed Heads. Karen and I took the obligatory photographs at the monument, stood with one foot in New South Wales and one in Queensland, and congratulated each other for the achievement of riding out of the state from Sydney. It had taken us only twenty four days, and despite some teething troubles, had been accomplished without too many problems.
Although we had been telling everyone that we were travelling around Australia, Karen was actually taking the trip one leg at a time - doing Sydney to Noosa before deciding if she would go on. By the time we reached the border, however, I was fairly confident that Karen would agree to the next scheduled leg, from Noosa to Cairns.