Three Years on the Road
by
Brett Davis


101. A Twist of Fate

After breakfast the next morning I packed up the tent and sleeping gear and loaded it onto the bikes before driving into town to get some cash from the bank to pay for the car hire, fill the tank with petrol and return the car to the Ford dealer. I then walked back to the caravan park where Karen had been waiting patiently. At 9am we rode out of Esperance.

The day was overcast, warm and windless. We spotted a lone cyclist in the distance, also headed north, and he was still ahead of us when we pulled into Gibson after twenty four kilometres to buy some stamps, post our postcards and stretch our legs and backs. Morning tea at forty two kilometres and more stretch breaks slowed us down again, so we did not catch up to the cyclist until we reached Grass Patch at seventy six kilometres. He was a Dutch backpacker, who had arrived in Perth, bought a cheap bike and taken off for a circuit around the south-west. He was better prepared for backpacking than he was for long distance cycle touring, with a bike that looked like it would fall apart at any moment, his pack precariously strapped onto the back rack and a plastic, two litre drink bottle his only water supply. He had no maps and not much idea, but he was young, fit, adventurous and possessed of a good pair of cycling legs.

Ten kilometres further up the road, Karen and I turned off the highway and rode into the Red Lake Nature Reserve to have lunch. We had hoped to find a table, but we did not even find the lake! The reserve consisted of mallee and red dirt, so we sat in the latter under the shade of the former to eat our usual C-rations. A few minutes later we were joined by a dugite which made a beeline straight towards us across the clearing. I quickly walked over to it, my presence causing it to change its course slightly, and shadowed it for about thirty metres until it was safely past our lunch site. We might not have found the lake at the Red Lake Nature Reserve, but we had certainly found some nature.

The final twenty kilometres of the day were highlighted by a number of salt lakes on either side of the highway in varying stages of drying out. They were an obvious reminder that Karen and I were back in the desert again, and prompted us to realise that we had not seen a Western Australia Xmas tree since the morning. We rolled into Salmon Gums in the middle of the afternoon after yet another one hundred kilometre day. The caravan park was a rather bare affair, with the four dollar camping fee deposited into an honour box. A small, corrugated iron shed served as the campers kitchen and provided good shade from the late afternoon sun.


A salt lake on our way to Norseman

In the evening we were joined by the only other caravan park residents, two girls, who were working for the summer at the local wheat bin. They were both university students, one studying Psychology and the other Communications. It was good to have their company, because Salmon Gums is a long way from anywhere and Karen and I have long been advocates of the "Safety In Numbers" theory.

After dinner we walked into town to buy an icecream and to phone Jill and Tony in Perth. We had put their address on our application for Telstra shares which we had filled out at their place. Kevin had informed us that they had received mail from Telstra for us, and we needed to let them know where they could forward the mail. We soon discovered that Salmon Gums is not the little backwater town it first appears to be, and that it is actually at the forefront of technological advancement. Its public telephones would not accept our phone-cards! Sometime recently the old style, thin, flexible phone-cards had been replaced by a newer style similar to credit cards. Not only did Karen and I not have the new style card, we had not even known that they existed! Was life passing us by while we were cycling around Australia?

We were on the road at seven the next morning, cycling over a never-ending series of gentle undulations through an uninspiring terrain of scrubby mallee and some kind of taller eucalypts - salmon gums maybe? The road surface was rough, slowing us down by a couple of kilometres per hour. The south-easterly breeze which had helped us yesterday had swung to the north-east overnight. It was not strong, but it was fairly constant, and it slowly strengthened during the day.

Nothing of interest happened while we were on the road. We had our standard stretch breaks at fifteen, thirty and forty five kilometres, and morning tea at fifty seven. At fifty kilometres the road had swung directly into the wind, forcing us to swap leads every two and a half kilometres. After seventy kilometres the road turned more northerly, allowing us to return to our normal lead distance of five kilometres. We stretched at seventy, eighty and ninety kilometres as well. On a rough, flat road into a constant breeze, we were pedalling constantly. The breaks were a welcome respite.

After ninety eight kilometres we reached Norseman. We rode right through town to the BP service station situated at the intersection where the Eyre Highway begins its journey across the Nullarbor. I wanted to go to the BP for three reasons. The first was a lunch of hamburgers, chips and Coke. The second was to push our odometer reading for the day up over the one hundred kilometre mark. The third reason was to find out exactly where the bus would be leaving from later in the day. I did not want to leave anything to chance.

We rode back into town for showers at an amenities block near the public swimming pool, and then returned to the service station to wait for the Greyhound. Karen and I had been given detailed instructions on how to prepare Elle and Mel for transportation on the bus. We removed all the panniers and bound all our loose baggage together. We removed the pedals and completely covered the chains with plastic bags tied on with electrical tape. We removed the pumps, lights and computers as well. When it was all complete, we sat down at a wooden table for an hour to await the arrival of the bus.

A guy in a Kombi pulled into the parking area nearby and began to change a tyre. We spoke to him for about twenty minutes, just to while away the time until the bus arrived. The guy was a real cowboy - name anything and he had done it. He was an oil driller on rigs in Bass Strait and a dynamiter for the mines up north. When he saw our bikes he suddenly became a mountain bike rider and iron man triathlete. I am not saying that we disbelieved him, but we did wonder why a guy who confessed to be currently earning two and a half thousand dollars a week would be travelling around the country in a beat up Kombi.

After he had gone, Karen and I returned to our table. The benches attached to the table were pretty decrepit, and a board from one had fallen off and lay on the ground nearby. A half hour after the bus was due to arrive, when Karen was returning from the BP where she had found out that the bus had been an hour and a half late leaving Kalgoorlie, she accidentally trod on the board. Unfortunately, it had a rusty nail protruding from it, which penetrated the sole of her shoe - and her foot. The wound was not deep and there was not much blood, so Karen applied some tea-tree oil as an antiseptic and applied a bandaid. She then tried to work out when she had received her last tetanus booster. Three years ago? Five years? Ten years? She could not remember.

The bus eventually arrived at the service station and pulled up at the petrol pumps. While the driver was filling the tank, Karen took a photo of me pretending to board the bus - just in case we forgot later.


Pretending to board our bus

Afterwards, I spoke to the driver. He gave me the good news that there would be no problem taking Karen and me on the bus to Adelaide. He also gave us the bad news that he would not be able to take our bikes as well!

The driver advised us to ring the Perth office for a change of booking. Karen went into the BP to make the call, and soon returned with the news that the Wednesday, Thursday and Friday buses were all fully booked, but that there were vacancies on the Saturday bus. The driver then told us that even if we booked seats on the Saturday bus, there was still the likelihood that the storage compartments on the bus would be full and that the bikes would have to be left behind.

He also suggested that we take his bus tonight and leave our bikes at the service station to be transported later whenever space was available. The thought of Karen and me in Port Augusta and our bikes out of our control halfway across the continent was too horrible to contemplate. The thought of spending the next four days in Norseman was not pretty either.

Karen and I decided to get a good night's sleep and leave any decision making until the morning. The bike chains were still covered and the pedals still packed away, so we pushed Elle and Mel about four hundred metres down the road to the nearest caravan park. After setting up the tent we sat in the campers kitchen, considering our options while we dined on the sandwiches Karen had prepared earlier and which we had hoped to eat on the bus somewhere in the middle of the Nullarbor.

So what were our options? We could always get on the bikes again and follow one of the three roads out of Norseman. South to Esperance again was out of the question. East into the Nullarbor headwinds was quickly dismissed as well. That left us with north, to Kalgoorlie. It was a much bigger town with plenty of things to see and do, and it would also give us the choice of catching either the bus or the train. We knew that the train left Kalgoorlie twice a week - on Friday and Monday nights - but we did not know whether there were any seats available. Xmas was only two weeks away, and it was likely that all the trains would be full. A quick call to the rail booking office resulted in a recorded message which informed us that office hours were from six in the morning until six at night.

Surprisingly, neither Karen nor myself were particularly upset or concerned about our predicament. Three years on the road had given us the belief that everything happens for a reason. We had been faced with a bit of adversity, and had just shrugged and accepted the situation. We did not know where we were going, or how we were going to get there, but we had no doubts that whatever happened to us, it would be for the best. Weird, huh?

A few more options occurred to us overnight. We had purchased a two thousand kilometre bus pass, so we could bus to Kalgoorlie instead of ride. Or we could bus all the way to Perth where our options were greatly increased. Karen and I brainstormed thousands of ideas. Some of these were off the planet. We could freight our bikes back to Sydney and buy a car to complete our travels. Or we could freight our bikes to Adelaide and follow them on a plane. We could ring the hire car companies and ask if they had any vehicles that needed to be relocated from Perth to Adelaide. We could find jobs for a few months until the winds changed direction on the Nullarbor. We could sell the bikes and fly home. We could store the bikes and fly to Bali for a holiday. We could head north again via the inland route to witness the Wet Season in the tropics. We could settle permanently in Western Australia somewhere. We could join the Hare Krishna's.

For some unknown reason, Karen latched onto the idea of relocating a hire car from Perth to Adelaide. I thought the idea was far-fetched. What was the likelihood that a hire car company would just happen to have a vehicle that needed to go from Perth to Adelaide right at this moment? Karen did what she always does when I tell her she is crazy - she went out and did what she wanted to do anyway. She phoned the office of Brits-Australia in Perth and asked if they had any vehicles they wanted relocated to Adelaide. Incredibly, they did!

After I had finished repeating the word "bullshit" about a dozen times, Karen told me that Brits-Australia had a 4WD vehicle big enough to transport our bikes and all our gear, and we could relocate it to Adelaide providing we could pick it up from Perth before Sunday. She then rang Greyhound to arrange two seats on the bus from Norseman to Perth for the following morning at 7am. The bus would arrive in Perth on Thursday evening and we could pick up the car on Friday morning. When the bus tickets had been booked, she rang Brits-Australia again to confirm the relocation for Friday.

Now all we had to do was arrange accommodation for Elle and Mel while we were away picking up the vehicle, and arrange accommodation for ourselves for the night we would be staying in Perth. We approached the caravan park owners, explaining our situation and letting them know we would be staying another night, and that after we picked up the vehicle on the Friday morning, we would return to Norseman that evening and spend a third night in the caravan park. They quickly agreed to look after our bikes for the day and a half we would be away.

With the value of our old-style phone-card now fully discharged, Karen bought one of the new-fangled ones and used it to call Rhonda and Peter in Perth to ask them about staying at their place on the Thursday night. They said no problem, so we were set. All we had to do now was kill twenty four hours in Norseman.

With our immediate future under control, it was time for Karen to ensure that her long term future was okay as well. Both of us were concerned about the possible consequences from the rusty nail Karen had stepped on. We walked out to the Norseman Hospital, a kilometre or two from the centre of town. A nurse at the hospital said they did not do tetanus injections and referred us to a doctor back in town. She rang up and arranged a 12:30pm appointment. She gave Karen and me a lift back into town, along with an elderly female patient whose walking frame was cradled across our legs as we sat in the back seat.


Norseman

We had a few hours to wait for Karen's appointment time, so we made the most of our time with a walk up to the town lookout. We passed a statue of "Norseman", the horse after which the town was named, and carried on past a huge, man-made mountain of rubble from the Bullen Decline - a mine we walked past soon after. The lookout gave three hundred and sixty degree views, but the surrounding scrubby hills and flat salt lake were not particularly spectacular. We dawdled back down the hill, timing our arrival back in town to coincide with the appointment.


The slag heap - the most spectacular attraction of Norseman

The doctor told Karen to find out exactly when she had had her last tetanus booster, because if it had been within the past five years she could suffer an adverse reaction to the shot. He would be at the hospital all afternoon, and suggested we go there once we had checked Karen's doctor's records. We walked back to the caravan park where Karen rang her mum back in Sydney, asking her to find out about Karen's records. A short time later the caravan park owner gave us a message that Barbara had called and would like Karen to ring back.

Karen returned Barb's call, only to find out that the Medical Centre had archived all of its pre 1996 records and could not provide the information without going to a great deal of trouble. The person Barb had spoken to recommended that Karen receive a reduced injection. Karen walked back to the hospital where the doctor told her there was no such thing as a reduced injection. He asked about the puncture wound and about the precautions we had taken. Because the wound had not been deep, and it had been treated with antiseptic almost immediately, the doctor believed that there was very little chance that Karen would develop tetanus. He advised Karen to monitor the wound and see a doctor if there was any sign of infection.

After Karen had returned from the hospital, I walked into town to check on the location of the bus terminal and the time when the bus was scheduled to leave. Karen made an excellent meal of reconstituted mince and carrots, given to us by Ivan and Rachel at Porongurup, which she spiced up with Mussaman curry and coconut milk, augmented with peas and onions, and served on a bed of Jasmine rice. Although I was sometimes critical of the sameness of the meals we ate on the trip, there were many occasions when Karen accomplished amazing culinary feats.



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