Three Years on the Road
Brett Davis

49. North of Alice

The terrain immediately north of Alice was surprisingly hilly. A heavy overcast covered the sky and a strong westerly wind blew in from our left, providing more of a hindrance than a help and bringing with it an occasional light shower of rain. All morning the left sides of our bodies alternated between wet and dry. We had morning tea at the Tropic of Capricorn, taking the obligatory photo of a rather impressive monument to the invisible line underneath.

Monument to Tropic of Capricorn (note goat)

The hills soon disappeared behind us and were a distant memory by lunch at sixty seven kilometres, the road travelling through uninspiring countryside with only one outstanding feature - its incredible flatness. The final thirty kilometres of the day were spent in a futile attempt to reach the crest of the road in front of us. For almost two hours the elusive crest matched our pace, moving away relentlessly, never to be reached. We theorised that the apparent crest was actually an optical illusion, a shifting horizon caused by the curvature of the earth.

By mid afternoon the showers had disappeared, but the wind had swung around to the north-west to make our pedalling incessant. Late in the day a German motorcyclist flagged us down. He had just come from a parking bay about four kilometres up the road where he had been speaking with a south-bound Japanese cyclist who had been worried about camping alone. He suggested we might like to keep each other company.

We soon reached the parking bay at Connor's Well after a long day of ninety six kilometres. A pair of caravanners and a couple in a truck, obviously travelling together, were setting up their campsite for the night at the back of the parking bay. A small tent was set up in a far corner, with a bike propped nearby. Karen and I left the cyclist to his own devices and were soon talking with the two couples, Cliff and Mary, and Bill and Anne. I gladly accepted their offer of a Cooper's Light beer as I set up the tent a short distance away, using the caravan and the truck to provide a bit of protection from the cars and trucks which would roll into the parking bay during the night. We were even offered the use of a table for the evening. I could not resist the offer of a second beer, and Karen scored a glass of white wine as well. The generosity of travellers never ceased to amaze us.

The parking bay was adjacent to the highway, so traffic noise was unavoidable. I was awakened a couple of times during the night by the sound of roadtrains coming right through the middle of our tent, but on the whole Karen and I slept fairly soundly. When we spoke to Mary in the morning, however, she described the experience as "hell night", constantly being woken by the noise and very apprehensive when two separate roadtrains had pulled in for an hour or two before leaving. As I had only heard one roadtrain in the parking bay, and then only as it was leaving, I must have slept okay.

After a leisurely pack up to allow the condensation on the tent to dry, Karen and I bid our fellow campers goodbye and continued northward. The Japanese cyclist had disappeared, on his way before dawn and intent on travelling big distances like many of his countrymen.

We had the benefit of a southerly wind for most of a fine morning. At Ryan's Well we stopped for morning tea, leaning our bikes against its stone walls. Our much maligned Mr Tuffy tyre liners may have saved us from a number of punctures here, as the ground around the well was thick with three-cornered jacks. I pulled twenty of the bastards out of my tyres, but had no punctures.

Three-cornered Jacks

While we were travelling, particularly in the outback, people would always ask us if we stayed at this camping ground, or that roadhouse, or at a certain town. Usually, we would answer in the affirmative, because they were all so far apart that we were forced to stay at every one of them. A few times, however, especially after camping out in the sticks, we would actually ride past a roadhouse, and this happened shortly after morning tea. Aileron came and went, giving us a great feeling of satisfaction with our own self-sufficiency.

We lunched at eighty kilometres in scrub at the side of the road, and battled a north-easterly headwind for the final twenty one kilometres of the day to the roadhouse at Ti-tree. Five dollars bought us a campsite, the use of a sheltered and illuminated campers kitchen, and all the grapefruit we could eat from trees in the campground. A swimming pool was available to guests as well, plus a small zoo complete with emus, guinea fowl, kangaroos, peacocks, ducks, geese, chickens and three injured wedge-tailed eagles! The area also has vineyards and fields of vegetable crops, something we had not expected to see in central Australia.

Ti-tree was so well appointed that Karen and I actually considered staying there for a rest day, using the facilities of the roadhouse and campground like a resort, lazing by the pool in the sun, plucking fruit from nearby trees, strolling through the zoological gardens. As tempting as it was, we decided to push on. The previous two, long days must have taken their toll on both Karen and me and prompted our desire for a rest day because when it came time to leave I almost rode off into the desert without filling any of my water-bottles. Karen, however, demonstrated her tiredness by making a very Karen-like navigational error.

The Stuart Highway at Ti-tree, like most of its three thousand kilometre length, runs basically from north to south. The caravan park at Ti-tree is on the eastern side of the highway. This meant that when we arrived the previous afternoon we had to cross the road to enter the park. For Karen, crossing the road is a very confusing thing to do. In the morning when we cycled out of the roadhouse, with the rising sun behind us telling all the world where east was, Karen turned left - south - and started heading back towards Connor's Well and Alice Springs! Crossing that damn road gets Karen every time!

After a few moments of hilarity, Karen and I were soon heading in the right direction. We soon passed Central Mount Stuart, once considered to be the geographical centre of the continent. Despite its fame, we neglected taking the obligatory photo. The mountain is a fairly uninspiring, flattened dome, especially to a couple of tired cyclists.

A cool morning had given way to a warm, sunny day, but headwinds still restricted our progress. After thirty kilometres Karen and I were looking for a likely spot to stop for morning tea when we began hearing the sound of birds - lots of them. This was totally unexpected - we were riding through flat desert - but the reason for the birdsong soon became obvious. A long, narrow gravel pit - obviously used as a supply for road base during the construction of the highway - had filled with water to form a man-made waterhole - an oasis in the desert. Karen and I parked our bikes in the shade, put the kettle on the stove and grabbed our binoculars for a quick walk around the pit. In a couple of minutes we saw zebra finches, a grebe, a very flighty flock of budgerigars and two cockatiels - the latter being a new bird for us!

Shortly after we resumed riding we were passed by a caravan which pulled over and stopped by the side of the road about two hundred metres ahead of us. The driver climbed out of the car with a camera in his hand and snapped a picture of Karen and I as we rode past. This was a fairly common occurrence. Somewhere in photo albums all over Australia, and possibly the world, there are photographs of Karen and I riding around the country. I wonder what the captions say...

We had noticed a few brown falcons during the morning, thinking little of them as they are probably the most common bird of prey in Australia. Every second raptor we sighted turned out to be a brown falcon. Just after having our photos taken, however, Karen spotted a similarly shaped bird but with a completely different colour. Out came our binoculars for a positive sighting on the rare grey falcon! Then, only a few kilometres further north, a dark shape caught our attention. Another long look through the glasses and a detailed process of elimination led us to another new sighting of another rare bird - the black falcon. Seeing either of these birds was amazing. Seeing both of them was almost unbelievable.

By lunchtime we had covered sixty five kilometres and the headwinds were getting ridiculous - pushing us back to only thirteen or fourteen kilometres per hour. We stopped for a break earlier than we had planned after finding another water-filled scrape with good shade on its northern bank. During lunch we watched zebra finches, budgies, diamond doves, a common bronze-wing pigeon and a black fronted plover play around the waterhole. The winds eased markedly after lunch as we climbed through and around the scenic Forster Range. We actually hit our maximum speed for the day - about thirty kilometres per hour - in the last couple of easterly, downhill kilometres which brought us into Barrow Creek.

Like many of our overnight stops along the Stuart Highway, Barrow Creek consisted of a combined roadhouse, caravan park and pub. The caravan park was basically putrid. We managed to find a patch of flat grass for the tent, but had to put up barriers of concrete blocks on either side of our campsite to deter other caravan park patrons from running us over during the night. The showers were housed in portable cabins with very little ventilation, but after a ninety kilometre day they were still a welcome luxury. Karen and I had dinner sitting on our blue groundsheet near our tent, the smell of septic tanks wafting around us while we ate.

After dinner we adjourned to the relatively fresh air of the Barrow Creek Pub where we met a rather interesting character. After Victor and the One-Armed Cook, the Wide-Load Driver was the strangest guy we had met on our travels so far. He was actually the driver of one of the warning vehicles in a series of wide-load convoys that had been passing us all day, transporting huge bridge parts up the Stuart Highway. The guy was a wide-load himself, built like the proverbial brick out-house and weighing in the vicinity of twenty stone, or about one hundred and twenty five kilos or more. Probably more. We marvelled at the size of his amazing beer-gut as he told us about his cycling exploits when he was younger and thinner and could still check whether his fly was zipped up without using a mirror. He told us of his rides from Murwillumbah to Tweed Heads - a distance (he told us) of two hundred kilometres - which he would regularly cover in less than three hours. As this works out to an average speed of about sixty seven kilometres an hour, and the world one hour record in a velodrome is around fifty five kilometres an hour, I greeted this remarkable feat with a degree of scepticism. He swore it was the truth, and cited as proof the similar exploits of Japanese touring cyclists in Australia, who (he told us) repeatedly rode between five hundred and six hundred kilometres per day, every day, while carrying panniers, tents, cooking gear, cameras and presumably the kitchen sink!

I later checked the distance from Murwillumbah to Tweed Heads on a map - thirty one kilometres. A ten kilometres per hour average for the man-mountain seemed much more realistic. As the Wide-Load Driver continued to regale us with stories of his cycling prowess, Karen began to nod, smile sweetly and agree with everything he said. It was probably a very wise thing to do. We soon excused ourselves, saying we needed to rest for the ride to Wycliffe Well the next day. Our mate told us not to worry because it's only one hundred and sixty kilometres away. The Wide-Load Driver must have forgotten about the shortcut - straight up the highway - because we only rode ninety three kilometres before arriving at Wycliffe Well the next day! It would seem that many people, especially those like our wide-load friend, live in a very different reality from that inhabited by Karen and myself, and any advice and opinions that we receive from them must always take this into account.

On the way to Wycliffe Well Karen and I originated a game that we would continue to play for the rest of our cycling trip. The hill scenery just north of Barrow Creek had been pretty good, but it had given way to nothing scrub. A sign soon informed us that we were travelling along a section of the highway that was dead straight for the next forty kilometres! There was absolutely nothing to see until we noticed a tall, man-made structure some distance ahead.

"Do you see that tower ahead, Karen?"
"To the left of the highway, just poking above the horizon."
"Oh yeah. What about it?"
"How far away do you reckon it is?"
"Hmmm, twenty kilometres?"
"Okay, I'll guess twenty two. Whoever is closest, wins. What is the reading on your computer?"
"Exactly fifty eight kilometres."
I made a note of the difference in our readings. "Right. The mid point is twenty one. Adding this to your reading gives seventy nine. Anything less than seventy nine means you win, anything over and I win."

For the next half hour the tower gradually drew closer. Karen was probably thinking about food for most of this time, but I was rapt in the contest. It soon became obvious that both our estimates were wide of the mark. The tower was much closer than we thought - about fifteen kilometres.

"I win," said Karen.
"Okay, I'll concede defeat this time, but I think we should change the rules. Let's have a rule where you don't win if the tower is more than two kilometres further away than your estimate."

A windmill came into view a bit later in the day. "How far do you reckon, Brett?"
"You go first. We'll have a rule where the current champion has first guess, okay?"
"Okay. I reckon its eight kilometres away."
"As close as that?" I revised my estimate. "I'll say eight point one."
"Hey, that's not fair?"
"Why not?"
"It just isn't. You have to guess the distance in whole numbers of kilometres."
"Is that a rule?"
"It is now."
"Alright, nine kilometres. I've got eighty five on my computer."

This time the guesses were more accurate. Karen's guess of eight kilometres came and went. The windmill loomed large before us. I watched the distance on my computer slowly advance towards ninety three and a half, the cut-off point beyond which I would be the winner. For the last half a kilometre, I called out the distance every hundred metres.

"Ninety three point two."
"It's getting close now. I think I'm going to win!" squealed Karen.
"Ninety three point three."
"It's really close now!"
"Ninety three point four!"
"That's it! We're level. I win! I win!"

An even less exciting pastime was caravan counting. Every winter about half the population of Victoria and South Australia, along with a few Tasmanians and New South Welshmen, lock up their homes, jump in their cars and tow their caravans around the north of the country for six months. We were constantly being passed by these caravans. I noticed one day that most of the vans which passed us seemed to be Viscounts, so I challenged Karen to a contest where I would score a point for every Viscount caravan that passed us, and she would score a point for any other caravan. The first one to reach a score of ten would be the winner. This game petered out at around seven all, mainly through boredom and a complete lack of interest.

With a very helpful tailwind for a change, we reached Wycliffe Well at lunchtime after a touch over four hours of riding for the ninety three kilometres. A former cattle station, Wycliffe Well is now a combined roadhouse and caravan park, but Lou Farkas the owner had big plans for it, including a three hundred seat auditorium (built), a huge barramundi and mud crab dam for anglers (half built), a three and a half kilometre train track around the grounds (built but later demolished and still to be re-built), a zoo (some kangaroos, an emu, three camels and a donkey), and a mountain lookout (the top of the maintenance shed). Lou's entrepreneurial skills can also be seen in Wycliffe Well's other claim to fame - the UFO Capital of Australia. Apart from a lack of money, Lou's biggest problem seems to be a burning desire to start every project right now, without concentrating on one thing at a time.

UFO at Wycliffe Well

Before and after dinner we chatted with Brian Adams (not the rock star), a guy from Mildura who was doing maintenance work in the caravan park. We spoke about life, books, God, the big bang theory, metaphysics and his admiration for us because we had left everything behind in order to have an adventure. He also gave us a book - Wilbur Smith's "The Seventh Scroll" - yet another example of the incredible generosity of the people we met.

We rose late the next day and dawdled over breakfast and packing, knowing that we only had thirty kilometres to ride to our next destination - the Devil's Marbles. I fixed a puncture in my rear tyre caused by the spike of a three cornered jack then grabbed a couple of grapefruit off a caravan park tree which Brian had pointed out to us. We rode seventeen kilometres up the highway to Wauchope where we stopped for morning tea. While sitting at a table across from the roadhouse we had the misfortune to be harassed by a pesky donkey and a goat, so we were soon back on the road for the final ten kilometres.

The Wauchope Donkey

The Devil's Marbles are large, rounded rocks strewn across the countryside in haphazard heaps, many balancing precariously. Reputed by the aborigines to be the eggs of the Rainbow Serpent, they are incredibly photogenic and a must-see for any Stuart Highway traveller. As we turned into the road which led to the Devil's Marbles, Karen and I were amused by a sandwich-board sign on the corner which advertised ice-creams. Probably placed there by some wag, we thought, but we agreed that if there actually was a shop in the area, we would each treat ourselves to the luxury of an ice-cream.

A couple of hundred metres up the road we arrived at a car park and right in the middle of it sat an ice-cream van! We could not believe our luck. The lady in the van explained that she was from the roadhouse at Wauchope. She had found that south-bound travellers tended to bypass Wauchope because they had stopped at the major town of Tennant Creek only a hundred kilometres to the north. North-bound travellers tended to bypass the Wauchope roadhouse because they had stopped at Wycliffe Well only seventeen kilometres to the south. Almost all travellers, however, stopped at the Devil's Marbles, and almost everyone who stopped there bought an ice-cream or a drink. Karen and I were no exceptions.

For three hours in the afternoon we walked amongst the Marbles. Everywhere we looked there was another photograph to be taken. The area was more extensive than we had expected, with boulders scattered across the countryside for kilometres. We took more photos late in the afternoon when the light from the setting sun made the rocks glow. We were both very impressed, with Karen considering the Devil's Marbles to be even better than the Olgas!

Karen playing marbles

A strong, easterly wind picked up around midnight and by sunrise it had swung to the north-east to give us yet another day of headwinds. When we rode out to the highway shortly after eight o'clock, Karen again turned left and started heading south. She turned around after I called out to her, claiming she had done it deliberately for a joke. I wonder.

We swapped five kilometre leads all day. There had been no water at the Devil's Marbles but we stopped after eighteen kilometres to refill our bottles at Bonney Well. By the time we had morning tea at thirty five kilometres, the day had become uncomfortably warm and would eventually top thirty degrees. We slogged on into the hot headwinds for another three hours - forty five kilometres - before reaching the Cabbage Gum rest area where we stopped for lunch. Our Stuart Highway information told us we could obtain water here, but not only was there no water, there was not even a tank! For some reason it had been removed, with only its concrete base remaining. Karen managed to score a few litres of water from a young German couple in a Brits-Australia van who pulled into the rest area shortly before resumed riding. By the time we reached Tennant Creek we had completed one hundred and seven kilometres on a long, hot, boring and difficult ride. It had been alleviated late in the day by the appearance of Sturt's Desert Roses by the side of the road, and many stands of wattle. In addition, we had sighted yet another new bird - the red-backed kingfisher.

Many travellers had advised us to avoid Tennant Creek because of aboriginal problems, but we heard this about almost every town in the outback. Beggars on pushbikes cannot be choosers, anyhow. We had been riding for six straight days from Alice Springs, had covered over five hundred kilometres during that time, our food supplies were almost exhausted, we had no water and we had not showered for a couple of days, so avoiding a major town was simply not an option. As we rolled into Tennant Creek we were actually pleasantly surprised by the state of the town. It was clean and tidy, the streets were wide and well planned, and it appeared to be a far nicer place than many other towns we had seen during our travels.

The five hundred and fifteen kilometres we had ridden between Alice Springs and Tennant Creek was the furthest we had travelled in any six day period up until that time. This record would not last long. In fact, we smashed it just over a week later.

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