Karen and I had flown out of Darwin in late August 1996, and it was not until mid April 1997 that we returned, a gap of almost eight months. We were picked up at the airport by Louise and her two daughters, Elise and Alana. We had been gone so long that two year old Alana no longer recognised us.
Elle and Mel were soon released from their office confinement. They had obviously missed us during the Wet season, a thin layer of mould covering every surface of both bikes and panniers. Karen and I soon had them ready to roll.
Louise and Neville were wonderful. Since first meeting them in a Cardwell caravan park, they had looked after our bikes while we hiked on Hinchinbrook, supplied us with lodging for over a month while we watched the Olympic Games and then toured Kakadu and Litchfield, and kept our bikes in storage at their house for eight months. Now that we had returned to Darwin they were again putting us up during the three or four days it would take us to prepare our bikes and gear for travelling again. And as if this was not enough, we then asked another big favour of them - providing a place to stay for two more people, a Kombi and a dog!
Brett, Karen, Peter, Mihkala and Mac
During the time that Karen and I had been cycling around Australia, Karen's brother Peter had also been travelling. He had joined an organisation called the "Woofers" - Willing Workers on Organic Farms - which had provided him with a list of properties all over Australia where food and accommodation were supplied in return for four hours work per day. Peter had lived and worked on a variety of organic farms, picking up knowledge and skills with a view to one day owning his own little piece of Australia where those skills could be put into practice. During a public tour at a property he had been working at, Peter had met Mihkala, a wool classer from Western Australia who was following a similar path in life, and together they had worked in New South Wales and Queensland before heading for the Top End. Along the way they had acquired a lovely little Pomeranian named Mac. They just happened to be in Darwin when we flew back in. Louise and Nev had no hesitation in letting Peter and Mihkala stay for a few days as well.
Once we thought the bikes were ready, Karen and I took them for a long shake-down ride out to Darwin's East Point. Peter and Mihkala tagged along on their bikes as well, with Mac proudly sitting in the wire basket on Mihkala's handlebars. Karen and I were not only checking out our bikes and gear to see whether they were fully operational, we were also checking ourselves out. It had been nine months since we had ridden into Darwin, and we had hardly touched a bike during that time.
We rode out of Darwin on a Sunday morning. Peter, Mihkala, Louise, Nev, Elise, Alana and Louise's parents, Nell and Fred, were all gathered to see us off. After a couple of photographs and hugs and kisses it was time to be on our way. Karen promptly broke into tears again. She had cried on the day we rode out of Sydney bound for Cairns, she had cried on the day we had ridden out of St Georges Basin bound for Darwin, and now she was crying again. Was she crying because she was sad to be leaving good friends and family behind? Or was she crying because she was afraid of the dreaded west coast?
Our Darwin Friends
Karen and I had already ridden the section south of Darwin, so technically we could have continued our trip around Australia from Katherine. However, with both the bikes and ourselves being unknown quantities, the extra few hundred kilometres over familiar roads close to civilisation would provide a good test for man and machine before we ventured out into the wilds. It turned out to be one of the best decisions we ever made.
Darwin in April is hot. In fact, Darwin at any time of the year is hot, but having just spent six weeks in Tasmania with temperatures down to zero on occasions, Karen and I were finding the heat rather debilitating. The fitness we had built up while riding to Darwin had long since gone, and to make matters worse, we were now riding into an easterly wind which pushed our average speed well down. I had not been drinking enough water, as usual, and by the time we pulled into the Noonamah roadhouse for some much needed fuel - a pie, a coke and an icecream - I was just about knackered. It was all I could do to get back on the bike, cycle a few more kilometres to the Lakes Resort (caravan park) at Berry Springs and spend the rest of the afternoon in its pool trying to figure out why fifty four kilometres and three hours of riding could be so hard.
A party of aboriginal kids from the Gunbalunya School in Arnhem Land were also spending the night at the resort. Karen and I spoke to a couple of their teachers during the evening. They told us how they were attempting to introduce the kids to the joys of western society and spoke particularly about teaching them how to shop. Because they were not confident in their mathematical skills, the aboriginal kids tended to buy six cans of drink (for example) by going into a supermarket for one can, paying for it at the check-out and then going back in again to buy another can, and so on. I found it interesting that the kids were being taught how to spend, and not how to save. They obviously needed to learn about the value of money, because later that night after they had all showered and gone to bed, I found a ten dollar note on the floor of the men's amenities block. It was a good find and really helped our budget.
We had another major find the next day when I saw a few coins on the gravel shoulder of the road. I called out to Karen to stop, picked up the coins and then spotted a battered glow-mesh purse nearby. There were a few more coins inside the purse, but no identification. Then Karen noticed a five dollar note that had been captured by a grass tussock a short distance off the road. We promptly propped our bikes together and walked up and down both sides of the highway looking for money, eventually finding a grand total of eighteen dollars and ten cents! This helped us pay for lunch and cokes at "Charlie's Kiosk" in Adelaide River later in the day.
It was another hot day, eighty one kilometres and four and a half hours into a hot south-easterly wind. At Coomalie Creek we began a practice that soon became commonplace, taking off our shirts, dunking them in the cool water and then putting them back on again. Although we sometimes performed this task half a dozen times a day, we never became accustomed to the initial shock of cold fabric on hot skin that always took our breath away. I always looked forward to this little ritual, not just for its cooling effect, but also because Karen did not wear anything under her shirt while she was riding! Five kilometres later we were dry, and had to go through the same procedure all over again.
Karen dunking her shirt
The longer distance in the heat of the day had been taxing, but it had been a good test of our acclimatisation. Our legs were still strong and although the heat and headwind were a pain, we found we could handle them okay. We were now seasoned cycle tourers. If we had had such bad conditions when we had first left Sydney as novices, however, we might never have reached Newcastle, let alone Darwin. After a late lunch at Charlie's Kiosk in Adelaide River we rode out to the Racecourse caravan park and spent another afternoon sitting in a swimming pool.
As if to remind us that coincidences were an integral part of our travels, Karen met a woman at the caravan park from Cooma who knew Karen's cousins Ted and Val, and Laurie and Peggy. We had stayed with both couples on our way through Cooma from Sydney to Melbourne. The incidence of coincidence on this leg of our travels would not be as frequent as had occurred previously, but one or two would happen that were pretty spectacular.
Another hot day with south-easterly headwinds greeted us as we cycled out of Adelaide River. Karen and I had morning tea in a shady rest area near Bridge Creek, discussing the likelihood that Peter and Mihkala might soon be passing by. We knew they had been planning to leave Darwin two days after us, and given the distance we had travelled and the average speed of the Kombi van and their likely departure time and the present time of day, we figured they should be passing at any moment. Five minutes later they drove into the rest area and joined us for a cuppa.
Peter, Brett and Mihkala
Peter and Mihkala were headed for Perth, hoping to do some Woofing work on a couple of properties along the way. The Kombi, however, was having some mechanical problems and Peter feared it might not make it to the Western Australia capital. We chatted for over an hour before going our separate ways. Peter and Mihkala were headed for Timber Creek or Kununurra, depending on how the van went. Before they left us we arranged for them to hide four litres of water beside the road at Scott Creek- a day's ride west of Katherine.
Karen and I headed for Hayes Creek. Since leaving Darwin we had not stayed at the same locations we had visited the previous year, but from Hayes Creek on all of our overnight stops would be old favourites. The fifty seven kilometres we rode on the third day was again covered at a low average speed, mainly because of the direction of the wind, yet Karen and I were actually quite happy with the situation. Our research into the weather patterns across the top of Australia said that easterly winds were the norm. When we reached Katherine and turned right, the winds we were currently battling would theoretically push halfway across the top of Australia and all the way to Carnarvon.
We rode sixty two kilometres the next day, our fourth consecutive day of riding. Three days was usually our limit, but because we had done this stretch of country before, and because we were trying to get as mentally strong as possible before the really tough stuff began, Karen and I saw no reason to have a rest day. We met two Aussie cyclists, Bob and Trevor, who were in the last stages of a ride from Port Augusta to Darwin, commemorating the first continental crossing by bike exactly one hundred years before! We thought we had been doing it pretty tough, and could not imagine how it must have been a century ago, when the roads were either dirt or non-existent, the number of towns along the route could be counted on one hand, and the bikes were heavy and lacked gears!
Along this section of highway we noticed the approach of a familiar vehicle. Karen and I pulled over to the side of the road and flagged it down. The Blue Banana bus stopped opposite us and we saw that Wendy was driving. We spoke to her for a few minutes while a couple of interested backpackers looked on from inside the bus.
We again took a break at Emerald Springs, then slogged into the wind to Pine Creek and beyond for a return to Copperfield Dam. The road in had not improved during our absence. We spent a great afternoon and evening in the water, and even went for a very spooky swim after dark. Although the night was warm enough for us to sleep out under the stars, our previous experience at Copperfield Dam ensured that we did not make the same mistake again.
For the first time in five days we awoke to a windless morning. We experienced fifteen kilometres of bliss before the stillness was shattered by the resurrection of the usual hot south-easterly. A twenty kilometre detour into the teeth of the wind could not deter us from seeing Edith Falls again, our third visit in less than a year. The days had taken on a remarkable sameness. Wind, heat, hard riding and an afternoon soaking in a pool.
In the evening we again borrowed two chairs from the kiosk area. I was talking to Karen and watching the fading red glow of sunset when I noticed a strange object in the sky just above the horizon.
"Holy shit, Batman!" I exclaimed. "It's the bloody Hale-Bopp comet!"
Karen and I had heard of the comet's existence but both of us had forgotten about it during our preparations to leave Darwin and the trials and tribulations of returning to long distance cycle touring. Now, without even looking for it, we had just suddenly noticed that it was there. Our observational skills had greatly improved during our time on the road, given the amount of bird watching and star gazing we had done.
When we rode out of Edith Falls the following morning, a solid south-easterly wind was blowing over our left shoulders. I remarked to Karen that this was our first tailwind in over nine months! We looked for Gouldian Finches at the same spot we had seen them the year before, but had no luck this time, then it was out to the highway where a sharp left turn converted our tailwind into a headwind all the way to Katherine.
The thought of swimming in the Springvale Homestead pool helped motivate us onward, as did the idea of a little celebration at the bistro. When we finally arrived in Katherine, we had ridden almost four hundred kilometres in six straight days. It was now April 25th, so we had a bottle of wine with dinner and toasted three different events - Anzac Day, successfully recommencing our cycle touring, and our second anniversary on the road.
Two years before, on Anzac Day 1995, we had ridden out of Sydney bound for who knew where.