Three Years on the Road
Brett Davis

41. The Roadtrain Day

After a while, the actual mechanics of cycling become second nature. Hit an incline, click back a gear. Feel a sidewind, lean into it a little. See an approaching driver give us a wave, give him a wave back. Hear a car or roadtrain behind us, start the crazy bike rider routine.

The crazy bike rider routine was my prime method of defensive riding. The technique involved a series of manoeuvres designed to fulfil two main aims. The first was to make sure that the approaching driver actually noticed us in the first place. The second was to convince him that we were almost out of control and that he should miss us by as large a margin as possible. As I usually rode at the back, most of the time the responsibility was mine.

When the vehicle was about four hundred metres away, which is about twelve seconds, I would move across into the middle of the road and stay there for a few seconds. This was not only to convince the driver that I am inclined to make large, sudden movements, but also to show him that there was another cyclist on the road in front of me. I would then move back to the left of the road, and turn around and stare at the driver for a second or two, to let him know that I knew he was there. If they think you have not noticed them, roadtrain drivers have an unnerving habit of coming up behind you to a distance of about ten feet and then putting the entire electrical output of their rigs through the circuitry which drives their air horns. In these situations, it pays to have perfect and instant sphincter muscle control.

At about one hundred and fifty metres, or around four to five seconds, I would wobble out towards the centre of the lane then swerve back in a little towards the left hand side again, remaining about a metre out from the edge of the road. By this time, the approaching driver would be giving us as much room as possible. As the vehicle drew level with us, I would move over to the very left hand edge of the road surface. Assuming the driver had allowed us a metre of leeway, this last manoeuvre would ensure that this distance was doubled. On some occasions, the crazy biker routine was so convincing that the vehicle driver would actually hit the dirt on the right hand side of the road in his efforts to get as far away as possible.

Of course, most drivers would probably have given us a wide berth anyhow, even without the crazy biker routine. It is equally probable that most vehicle drivers would not have needed much convincing to make them believe we were crazy. Only lunatics would pedal pushbikes through the Australian outback in the first place! Still, the routine seemed to work, except for the day we rode from Woomera to Glendambo. In time we would come to regard it as a fairly typical day.

Our watch alarms woke us just before dawn and we began our usual morning routine, which always began with a check of the weather, especially the wind. The sky was clear, swept clean by a cold breeze from the south-east, so we immediately went into camp-break mode. Karen is responsible for breakfast, usually a cup of tea for me, porridge for us both, and another cup of tea for me while Karen has her coffee. As this is all done on a single burner stove powered by methylated spirits (the Trangia), it takes some time to accomplish. In the meantime, I am working in the tent, stuffing away both of our sleeping bags, squeezing and rolling up our thermorests, stacking it all outside with the clothes, books and valuables we keep in the tent with us, before sweeping the floor of the tent and packing it all away.

We were aiming for a 7:30am start - an hour earlier than our usual starting time. We have met some cyclists who are up and away before dawn, but they are crazy. We always ride in daylight. It is not only safer, it also means we have no headlights to carry, no batteries to worry about, no packing up in the dark, plus the tent has more time to dry out from any overnight dew. It also means we get plenty of valuable sleep. Apart from these practical considerations, when we were out in the elements almost constantly it seemed more fitting to follow the natural rhythm of the sun.

As it turned out, we were a little late and started at 7:45 am. Woomera is seven kilometres from the Stuart Highway. It was originally a restricted-access town when it was used solely as housing for workers in Australia's space program. Even after Woomera was opened up to the public, and when the highway was being re-routed, a bureaucratic decision was made to keep Woomera isolated because many of its residents worked at the nearby Narrunga facility. It was rumoured that the Americans would soon be leaving Narrunga, using satellites for their tracking purposes, and there were fears that those seven kilometres would spell the death of the town.

We reached Pimba, the truck stop on the highway to the south-west of Woomera, after battling cold crosswinds. It was cold enough for us to be wearing sloppy-joes, which unfortunately were black. When riding we try to be as visible as possible, normally dressed in white, long sleeved, collared business shirts, worn loosely and flapping in the breeze. Even after turning west onto the highway, and with the wind assisting us, the air was still cold enough to make us forget safety and keep our black tops on until around midday.

We travelled easily with the slight tailwind. By morning tea we had logged forty seven kilometres in two and a half hours, including a couple of stops, one for photos of a salt lake at Eucolo Creek, and another for a stretch break. We pulled into a parking bay overlooking the salt plain of Lake Hart for our usual half hour morning tea break consisting of a snack of chocolate-coated peanuts combined with mixed nuts, a cup of coffee for Karen, and a couple of cups of tea for me. I am not overly fond of plain water, so I usually wait for breaks to have a drink, whereas Karen drinks water constantly throughout the day. Hence my two cups to her one.

Elle, Karen and a SA salt lake

Our sloppy-joes came off about an hour later at our next stretch break. Shortly after we resumed riding I noticed two road trains approaching, one from behind and the other from ahead of us. I was not too concerned initially, but as the roadtrains got closer I could see that there was a strong likelihood we would all be passing each other at the same time. I called out to Karen that this could be pretty close, all the while expecting the driver behind us to slow his rig and pass us once the road train coming towards us had gone by. By the time we realised the roadtrain behind us was not going to slow down, it was right next to us, and very, very close.

Karen immediately ran off the road down the soft gravel shoulder almost into the scrub, struggling to keep the heavy bike upright. I glanced at the wheels of the first trailer as it passed, only inches away. I wondered how much the last trailer of the three might be fishtailing, and quickly got off the road as well.

After it had passed, the road train slowed down a little, the driver probably trying to see if he had killed anyone. I called him a rather rude name as Karen struggled with her bike back up onto the shoulder of the road, crying her eyes out. She tried to get straight back on the bike and continue up the road, but I stopped her until the tears and emotion had subsided. We both agreed that if ever a similar situation occurred again, we would get off the road a whole lot earlier.

A half hour later we found a large, heavily muscled, old man kangaroo lying in a cutting on the shoulder of the road. Its back legs were mangled, but it had managed to drag itself off the road using its front paws only. A couple of crows watched expectantly from a dead tree on top of a nearby embankment. The kangaroo's injuries were obviously fresh and I could not help wondering whether the road train driver who had recently passed us had made up for his earlier miss. The roo was doomed to a lingering, painful death, so there was only one thing to do. We stopped about fifty metres up the road where the shoulder widened. Karen waited with the bikes while I walked back to the kangaroo. I picked up a large rock as I went. The kangaroo hissed and tried to attack me, but from the waist down it was totally immobile. I stopped about two metres away and hurled the rock at the kangaroo's head, only to strike a glancing blow. Quickly retrieving the rock, I tried again, this time successfully. The roo tensed, shuddered, and then closed its eyes as its body slowly relaxed. I am not a religious man, but I could see how it might appear that a soul was leaving the dying body in front of me. I used the rock a third time, just to make absolutely sure that the roo was no longer feeling any pain. The crows were still watching as I walked back to the bikes.

At 1:15 p.m. we reached our scheduled lunch stop, a parking bay ninety six kilometres west of Woomera. We had a listing of every parking bay on the Stuart Highway in South Australia, and planned our stops around them. Only on rare occasions were we forced to have a break on the shoulder of the road, not that some of the parking bays were much improvement. They varied in their appointments from palatial - with a water tank, shade, tables and chairs, an emergency telephone, garbage bins and views - to squalid - a patch of land barely discernible from its surroundings, recognisable as a parking bay only because it had a garbage bin standing in the middle of it. Our lunch stop today was of the latter variety. Our division of labour at lunchtimes had Karen preparing the food while I boiled the water for our cuppas. Today I had an extra task, the repair of a flat tyre. I had been having a bad run lately, with punctures every few days. This one was similar to another I had had before. We were using glueless patches, expensive at one dollar a time for a postage-sized piece of sticky rubber, and they were not performing too well. They were staying on okay, and no air was escaping from around the edges, but they developed holes at exactly the same spot as the hole they were covering. I was still in the process of deciding whether I should patch the patch in these situations, or to peel the original one off and replace it with another, or go back to using the old, reliable patch-and-glue method. On this occasion, I decided to put a patch over the patch.

After our usual one hour lunch of C rations (cheese, carrot, crackers, cucumber, cabbage, coffee), we were back on the road again. The repaired tyre was back on the bike, because we figured that if the repair was good then we were laughing, and if it was bad it was better to know about it sooner than later. It would not be wise to assume the repair was successful, only to discover at a later, more critical time, that our only supposedly good tube had an unfixable hole in it.

The day had warmed up considerably to a temperature in the low thirties. We saw the tell-tale dust columns of willy-willies as they moved across the scrubby, bare earthed landscape. When one came close and looked like crossing the road just ahead of us, we accelerated into it, just to see what it was like. It was a hoot! We had expected the wind to cool us, and it did, but we had not counted on the grit that stung our eyes and peppered our skin. This was stupid, really, as we could see the dust being whipped up. We were also surprised by the force of the willy-willy. Although smaller in width than the road - not too big on the willy-willy scale - the wind in the willy-willy buffeted us this way and that, not strong enough to topple us, but enough to move us around. The whole episode lasted about five seconds, and gave us a greater respect for, and appreciation of, these fascinating quirks of nature.

Between Woomera and Glendambo, the highway crosses the railway line via a huge man-made hill - an earthen overpass almost one kilometre long. The view from the top was not worth the climb however. We had expected the cliche of featureless, flat plains extending from horizon to horizon, and railway tracks stretching out for miles without a turn to disappear into the shimmering distance. But instead, the countryside was bland and lumpy, and the tracks turned and disappeared behind small hills within a few hundred metres.

The afternoon went quickly with only twenty five kilometres to travel after lunch. Wedge-tailed eagles flew from the bodies of road kills as we passed, only to circle back again moments later. Pipits were everywhere, and we sighted a small flock of Major Mitchell's (pink cockatoos) late in the day. Emus - which did not bat an eyelid when a road train hurtled past at a deafening hundred kilometres an hour only metres away - would bolt in terror if we approached within half a kilometre.

About fifteen kilometres from Glendambo, we saw a cat, apparently feral. We have heard a few tales about feral cats, about how huge they grow, and how mean they get, and the destruction they wreak on wildlife, particularly on birds. The feral cat we saw was not one of these. It was a normal size, but scrawny, and obviously doing it tough.

We rolled into Glendambo around 3:30pm, one hundred and twenty one kilometres for the day at an average of around twenty one kilometres per hour. Glendambo is a manufactured town, placed deliberately on the new highway at a convenient distance from the older roadhouses and towns up and down the road. It has a couple of take-away outlets, a service station, a pub, a little supermarket, and a caravan park. In short, it is an oasis in the desert. Our division of labour swung into action again. Karen had a shower while I unrolled the thermorests, unpacked the sleeping bags, extracted the pillows, put up the tent and tossed it all inside. When Karen returned, she put the kettle on and made our afternoon cuppas, complete with a slice or two of fruit-cake. On the long and difficult days when we ride almost to sunset, afternoon tea is taken on the road, but the winds had been fairly kind and made the day an easy one, despite the distance, so we had delayed tea until our arrival.

We leaned our bikes together and covered them with a ground-sheet, our normal security system, then checked out the town, stopping at the supermarket to buy metho, and to top up our food supply. Because we would be camping beside the road at the end of the next day, we splurged on a hamburger dinner at the cafe, and later indulged in a beer at the pub. We also phoned home to Karen's parents back in Sydney to inform them of our safe arrival. We had called them in Woomera and let them know that they would hear from us at Glendambo. Now that we were in Glendambo, we told them that we expected to be in Coober Pedy, two hundred and fifty kilometres away, in three day's time. For safety purposes we had decided to maintain almost daily contact with the Inlaws rather than rely on police stations which are rather infrequent in the outback. If we met with misfortune, Kevin and Barbara would know almost immediately, where it might take us a week to travel between police stations.

And so to bed, around 9pm, recovering from the efforts of the day, and building our strength for the days ahead. Alone in the tent, we discussed the day, especially the road train incident. We asked each other if this was really what we wanted to be doing. Were the pleasures of motorcycle touring worth the slight, but ever-present risk of death? Was it sensible to be cycling around a country as huge as Australia, when we could do it so much more easily and safely in a car or a bus? Had we really been worse off back in Sydney, living the comfortable, suburban lifestyle, working in an office, earning good money, and taking the occasional high quality overseas holiday to more exotic locations like Nepal or New Zealand? Were we really enjoying what we were doing?

The answer to every question was yes. Sure there are risks and discomforts, but when we get to the end of our lives, do we want to justify our existence by saying that we had a lifetime of safety and comfort? Or do we want to be able to say that we have lived?

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