It's a small world, so they say, and they are right. Karen and I were soon to find out just how right they are. When we left Sydney, we were carrying two books. One was a field guide to Australian birds. The other was a book on stars of the southern skies. All day long we would be scanning the sky, searching for birds, and all evening long we would be watching the heavens, familiarising ourselves with the constellations and stars, and looking for satellites and comets. An unsuspecting bystander who noticed us gazing skyward at all hours of the day and night could be forgiven for suspecting we were waiting expectantly for the imminent second coming of Christ.
The sky was one of the most beautiful sights we saw during all of our travels, yet so few people, even fellow travellers, paid it any attention at all. We are so lucky here in Australia. Not only does the southern hemisphere have a night sky with more spectacular features than can be seen in the north, but we also have wide open spaces away from city lights with low air pollution levels which enable us almost perfect viewing. The nearest galaxies to the Milky Way (our galaxy), our two neighbours, the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, are visible only from the southern hemisphere. And the most impressive globular cluster in the entire sky, Omega Centauri, is up there as well, not too distant from the Southern Cross.
Despite this, most people rarely look up at the night sky. If they did, perhaps some would be drawn out of their preoccupation with the often petty problems of everyday life, and begin to see and appreciate a bigger picture. Once the scale of the universe and our planet's role in it is understood, there comes the realisation of just how incredibly tiny the Earth is. Compared to the rest of the universe, we hardly rate a mention. The Earth is a small planet, circling an average sized star which is part of a medium sized galaxy, itself part of a simple local cluster of galaxies in an ever expanding and unbelievably huge universe.
To give an oft-quoted example of just how small our planet is, imagine a beam of light. It could travel around the world in one seventh of a second. To reach our nearest neighbour, the moon, the beam of light would need to travel for about three quarters of a second. To get to the sun, a bit over eight minutes. Some of the outer planets of our solar system are hours, even days away. To get to the nearest star, our beam of light would need to travel for over four years. To reach the nearest galaxy, our ray of light would need to travel for about one hundred and eighty thousand years. The scale is awesome, and the Earth is minuscule. No wonder Karen and I kept bumping into the same people time after time after time!
By the end of the trip, the number of meetings and re-meetings, coincidences and unlikely occurrences we had experienced was so large that even a non-believer like myself was beginning to suspect that a greater guiding force had taken an interest in the lives of Karen and myself.
The first coincidence happened on our sixth day out of Sydney. Karen and I were walking along Winda Woppa beach on the northern side of Port Stephens when we noticed a vaguely familiar figure approaching us. The guy had almost walked right past us when I suddenly recognised him.
"I know you," I said.
"I know you too," he replied. "Roche, right?"
"That's right, I'm Brett from the IT department."
"I'm Colin, from Quality Assurance."
We had both worked for the same company and been nodding acquaintances there. Karen and I did not think this meeting was very unusual at them time. After all, the beach on which we met is only a few hours drive north of Sydney. But then again, Winda Woppa is a fairly remote part of the coast, and we were the only three people on it, and it was a workday morning. It would only be at a much later date when we looked back through our diaries that we realised this was the beginning of a long series of coincidences.
After finding no contracts to sign at the Bulahdelah post office, we cycled our first three kilometres of Highway One before turning off along Lakes Way, a narrow, hilly and sinuous stretch of road which leads back to the coast near the Booti Booti camping ground. We set up camp inside an enclosure occupied by tables and chairs and a coin-operated barbecue. During dinner we spoke to a nearby caravanner who was using the hotplate, and he invited us over to his van for coffee with his wife. The invitation was promptly accepted, primarily because we were being eaten alive by hordes of mosquitoes, and also because the evening had turned very cold.
Alan and Margaret were on their way to a wedding in Sydney from their home near Tweed Heads. Margaret was still recovering from a cerebral haemorrhage caused by a fall during a tennis match three years before. During the course of the conversation, we discovered that they had lived for a time in Forestville, a suburb bordering our own French's Forest. When I mentioned that my mother had worked as a barmaid at the Parkway Hotel, Alan said that he must have known her as he had been a regular at the pub for many years. What a coincidence, we said. Small world, we all agreed. But little did we know just how small the world would prove to be during the months ahead!
Karen swimming in the Forster ocean pool
I had not given the first coincidence much thought, and did not place great importance on this latest coincidence with Alan either, but things began happening next day that were truly spooky. Karen and I decamped early and rode into Forster where we cooked a breakfast of eggs at a park bench by the ocean pool. Karen had just finished twenty laps when we noticed a familiar figure approaching.
"That looks like Lynne from Roche," I told Karen. Then the woman came nearer. "It (expletive deleted) is!" I said in disbelief.
Karen and I both knew Lynne well, but we had no idea that she was on a short holiday to the north coast. Instead of taking the Pacific Highway, Lynne had decided on a whim to take a look at Forster, a coastal town a good distance from Highway One. We spoke for a while, and managed to talk her into taking some gear back to Sydney for us, as the hills, headwinds and heavy bikes had been taking their toll. The importance of everything we carried was constantly being assessed, and certain items had been declared unnecessary, and heavy. Back went a fifty millimetre lens, not really needed when I had a twenty eight to two hundred millimetre zoom. Also going was some thermal underwear, a spare pair of shoes, and two bottles of moisturiser. The latter had been causing a running battle between Karen and myself for a number of days. Not only had Karen packed face moisturiser, which I thought unnecessary, but she had also packed hand moisturiser and body moisturiser as well!
An hour after our meeting with Lynne, as Karen and I were cycling north from Forster, a car pulled over to the side of the road about two hundred metres ahead of us and a man got out, obviously waiting behind his car for us to draw level. "Oh no," we both thought. "What have we done to aggravate this guy?" We had only been riding for about a week, and still had no idea whether or not our presence on the road would be enough to antagonise some drivers into a road-rage attack. We assumed the worst, and prepared ourselves for an outpouring of foul and abusive language, and the possibility of assault.
As we neared the waiting figure we discovered it was yet another good friend! Peter, a travelling umbrella salesman, had been one of eight family members and friends who had joined us for the week's holiday on Freedom a year earlier. He told us he remembered us saying that we might be travelling around Australia sometime in the future, but he had not realised that we intended to travel on pushbikes. We had not seen Peter since the holiday, so he had no idea that we had even left Sydney. He had simply seen two bike riders that he thought he recognised, despite never having seen us on bikes before, and despite the camouflage provided by our helmets and sunglasses. He had decided to stop to see if he was right! It was uncanny.
We lunched with Peter in Taree, on a picnic table beside the Manning River, before riding to a bike shop to have a new spoke guard fitted to Karen's back wheel. The contracts were not scheduled to arrive in Taree until tomorrow, so we killed the afternoon by setting up camp at a caravan park about four kilometres out of town, and by having a swim in the pool. For dinner, we walked to a nearby Macdonald's Restaurant, armed with free cheeseburger vouchers found on the local maps we had obtained from the town's information centre.
Rain began falling the next morning at six. Karen and I jumped out of the tent, uprooted the tent pegs and carried it to a nearby shelter before it could get wet. We packed our gear into large garbage bags, our primary means of waterproofing. After waiting a couple of hours for the post office to open, we rode back into Taree to again find no mail awaiting us. A quick phone call home gave us the news that settlement had been postponed a week due to the number of searches required by our loan provider. We figured we would be somewhere near Port Macquarie by that time, told Kevin to forward the papers there, and then went out to do battle with the rain.
Karen and I have always jokingly referred to ourselves as the sun gods, because whenever we go camping or holidaying, we are almost always blessed with perfect weather. On an extended trip however, bad weather will get you sooner or later, so we were quite prepared to ride in rain. After all, how long could it last? An hour? Maybe two?
It rained all day. In fact, it bucketed down, forcing us to switch on our tail-lights for added visibility and security. We were protected by good rain jackets, but they only reached to mid thigh and could not prevent water spraying up from our tyres. Nor were they able to stop water from trickling in around our collars, despite their hoods. Combined with the perspiration from our exertions, the rain, spray and seepage ensured that we were just as wet inside our jackets as outside. By the time we reached Kew, Karen and I were thoroughly saturated. We then spotted a driver reviver sign through the mist.
"Do you think we qualify for a free cup of coffee?" Karen asked.
"I sure do! We fit the description. We are drivers. We are in charge of a vehicle on a public road. We obey the same laws as everybody else. If they don't give us a coffee, we'll sue them for discrimination!"
When we walked through the door of the driver reviver station, looking like a couple of drowned rats and dripping water everywhere, the lady behind the counter needed no convincing. She went out of her way to help us, even insisting that we have a second cup of coffee before allowing us to venture out into the rain again.
From Kew we again turned off Highway One and headed back to the coast via Laurieton to North Haven. When we arrived at the caravan park, I insisted we rent a cabin for the night. Karen baulked at the cost, but I argued that because this had been our first day of riding in rain, we did not know whether our gear would be dry. For all we knew, our tent, clothes and sleeping bags could all be drenched, which would make for a very uncomfortable night. I must have been fairly convincing, because Karen soon agreed to my request. She did become slightly suspicious, however, when I requested a cabin with a television. Her suspicions were confirmed a little later when I revealed that today was the final day of the final cricket test between Australia and the West Indies, that a win for Australia would give them a rare and historic series victory in the Caribbean, and that the entire day's play was being televised live overnight.
As it turned out, our gear was dry. To punish me for my subterfuge, Karen decided that I could cook dinner, especially as I would not be erecting the tent. We bought steak, vegetables, a bottle of red wine and a cheesecake dessert, and a good night was had by all. To top it off, Australia won the test after a brilliant final day's play!
The morning dawned fine. After a hearty home-cooked breakfast of eggs, tomatoes and muffins, Karen and I stopped off at the Laurieton breakwater to reminisce about a triathlon we had contested there a few years earlier, then headed north. Both bikes were making strange noises, Elle from somewhere around the main crank, and Mel from the rear wheel. We decided to put up with the noise until we reached Port Macquarie, only forty kilometres away. We had coffee at Lake Cathie, lunch near the lighthouse at Tacking Point, and reached Port by mid afternoon, despite another flat tyre shortly after lunch. My tyre changes were beginning to get quicker.
First stop was the post office, and wonder of wonders, the mortgage papers had arrived! Needing our signatures witnessed by a Justice of the Peace, we were directed across the road to a real-estate agent and soon had the signed documents safely on their way. We also rang Karen's cousin at his Gold Coast real estate office and got him working on finding some tenants for the house we would soon own. After stopping at a bike shop where a mechanic diagnosed squeaking pedals as the cause of our noise problems, we were off to the caravan park near the breakwater to set up for the night.
This had been our tenth straight day of riding. Despite the two very short days either side of Hawk's Nest, we had already ridden close to five hundred kilometres, carrying very heavy loads with legs unaccustomed to the task. Port Macquarie looked the perfect place to spend the first rest day of our trip. Although we had splurged on a steak and wine in the cabin at North Haven, our budget was still on track, mainly due to the hospitality of our friends at Wyoming and Hawk's Nest. In Port Macquarie, however, we gave our budget a bit of a hiding.
We walked into town the first night after storing Elle and Mel in a caravan park shed, kindly made available to us by the manager of the caravan park. Caravan park managers proved to be the Jeckylls and Hydes of our travels. Some of the nicest people we met were caravan park managers, but so were some of the biggest bastards. I guess it goes with the territory. They are constantly dealing with people. If they like people, the job will make them ecstatic. If they don't like people, the job will sour them very quickly. And we met a couple of real lemons. Most however, were great. We left our bikes stored with caravan park owners and managers, free of charge, at a number of parks. What did the managers get out of the transaction? Not a great deal, except maybe an extra night's camping fees when we returned. It was worth so much more to us, and it warmed the cockles of our hearts that so many terrific people were more than willing to help.
In Port Macquarie we enjoyed a dinner at a Chinese restaurant and a movie, Pulp Fiction, afterwards. I thought the movie was brilliant, but Karen was not too sure. We discussed its merits as we walked home. Home, of course, was the tent.
Back at the caravan park, we again turned our attention to the stars and made a startling and disturbing discovery. We could not recognise any of them! All of our previous stargazing had been done shortly after sunset. We had become accustomed to the stars being in the same position in the sky, but it was now four hours later and the Earth had turned through sixty degrees in that time, presenting us with a new, and radically unfamiliar view of the heavens. Astronomy was going to be more difficult than we had thought! Out came the star chart for a much-needed refresher course. It would take us a year to become proficient at recognising the stars. During that time, the Earth travelled to the other side of the sun and back, and showed us all the corners of the sky.
"Rest day" is actually a misnomer. On many rest days we worked harder than we did while riding. The first rest day at Port Macquarie was typical, with the entire morning taken up with chores. There was washing and shopping to do, flat tyres to be fixed and pedals, chains, brake and gear cables to be oiled. We dried out damp clothes and rain jackets in the sun as we worked. After lunch we became tourists, walking around the foreshore beaches and lookouts to Nobby's Hill, and spotting dolphins moving along the coast towards the estuary. The walk took hours and it was dusk when we returned to the caravan park. Dinner was bought yet again, a kebab for Karen and fish and chips for me, then we took in another movie, Rob Roy. This time I was not as impressed with the movie as my wife was, perhaps because, unlike Karen, I do not drool at the sight of Liam Nieson.
During the rest day we had time to reflect on our first eleven days. How did we feel about the trip? What could we do to improve it? Were we actually enjoying ourselves or was the satisfaction not worth the effort? It was true that there had been some tough times, tough days, tough hills and tough weather, but on balance we believed in what we were doing. It was also too early to make a decision to stop. And besides, there was always the motivational factor of having nowhere else to go.
Although we did not realise it at the time, these first couple of weeks would prove to be pivotal in determining a lifestyle which would soon become second nature to us. During this time we set the patterns of our days and nights, established a workable division of labour that would remain with us for our entire journey, and instituted practices that would make our time on the road safer and much more enjoyable. We had our first taste of experiences that were to gain a far greater significance in our lives, such as the incredible friendliness of complete strangers and the weird coincidences that would occur with great regularity. There had also been the lows of dirt roads and flat tyres, and the highs of bird watching, wildlife, spur of the moment decisions, and staying with friends.
We had also gained the realisation that by doing just a little bit towards our goal every day, we could build a substantial achievement very quickly. After all, our journey had barely begun, yet here we were, halfway to Queensland already.