Three Years on the Road
Brett Davis

71. Heading West

On the ride north to Cairns and the ride south to Melbourne and around the coast to Port Augusta, Karen and I had ridden when we wanted to, and stopped when we felt like it. Sometimes we would only ride for a day before having a break, sometimes a few days, but it was rare for us to string a large number of riding days together. However, the subsequent desert sections of the trip had seen a different pattern emerge. We would ride every day between major destinations, and then have a long break. This pattern was to be repeated down the west coast.

Water had been a major concern through the centre of Australia even though the distances between tanks and towns had been relatively small. The main roads departments of South Australia and the Northern Territory had made our logistics very simple by having regular water supplies along the highway. Western Australia however, would be very different, with virtually no water tanks along our entire route. This was why we had arranged for Peter to leave water beside the road for us to pick up later when we passed by.

The heat of the tropics had been taking its toll on our bodies and minds since Darwin. To get around this problem, Karen and I planned to begin cycling at least an hour earlier in the morning. No more lazy nine o'clock starts for us! With a water drop ahead of us and the ever-present easterly wind at our backs, Karen and I rolled out of Katherine at 7:30am in the cool of the day. The Victoria River roadhouse was about one hundred and sixty five kilometres away, perhaps too ambitious a target to reach in one day, given the heat and our recent lack of riding. I knew we would reach it easily in two days, but was hoping to reach it in one. Karen was just hoping to reach it.

The wind that had dogged us from Darwin to Katherine was now our friend. Even though we were packed heavily with enough food to last us a week and enough water for a couple of days, we found the riding relatively easy with an average speed over twenty kilometres per hour no trouble to maintain. Our first stretch break came at thirty two kilometres at the King River - half a day's riding at pre-Katherine speeds. By morning tea our computers had registered fifty eight kilometres, longer than some whole days of the previous week! Wind, rather than heat or rain was always the determining factor in how fast and how far we rode.

Ever wary of the possibility of lurking crocodiles, Karen and I were dunking our shirts at every creek and water hole we passed. The day was progressing well, and as the scheduled water stop drew closer, we began scanning the side of the road for something to tell us where the drop was located. We had asked Peter to put the water out of sight of passing cars and close to the nearest roadside pole to Scott Creek. I noticed a two litre milk bottle on the side of the road about ten kilometres short of the scheduled drop point, and rode by without checking whether it contained water or not. When the Scott Creek turn-off sign came and went without the water being discovered, I figured that we might have missed out, but just short of the actual creek itself, near a white pole on the right hand side of the road, I spotted a small pile of stones, obviously man-made. Karen had not seen the cairn and had ridden well past when I called out for her to stop. Hidden in tussocks adjacent to the cairn were two containers of water. Our first water drop had been successfully retrieved!

As it turned out, on this day water was not a problem. Karen and I each carried three water-bottles, each of these containing seven hundred and fifty millilitres. Karen also had a five litre wine bladder filled with water, and I had two four litre wine bladders as well. Combined with the four litres that Peter had left for us, we now had over twenty litres of water - almost enough to have a bath! And to make matters even crazier, when we stopped at the 62 Mile Crossing parking bay for lunch a little later, we discovered that it had a water tank! We had wasted a lot of energy carrying an extra sixteen kilograms of dead weight around all day!

As its name suggests, the 62 Mile Crossing is sixty two miles - about one hundred kilometres - from Katherine. I was keen to carry on past the Crossing to set a new daily distance record, but Karen vetoed the idea. Her arguments came thick and fast. We were in no rush. A day of one hundred kilometres was a good effort given our current fitness levels. We had no chance of getting to Victoria River in the afternoon as it was still over ninety kilometres away, so we would still get there tomorrow whether we continued on or not. We had a plentiful supply of water. There was good camping out of sight in the scrub near the parking bay etc. I soon bowed to my wife's better judgement.

62 Mile Crossing

We spent the afternoon sitting at the parking bay table talking to fellow travellers as they came and went. One guy rolled up and introduced himself as Geoff, the owner of Max's Crocodile Tours at Timber Creek. He had been into Katherine to pick up a load of bread which he used when feeding the crocs on his tours. The bread was a day old, and frozen, and he gave us a loaf before he left. Unbeknownst to us, that loaf of bread would soon cause havoc!

Karen and I set up the tent in a secluded corner of the parking bay just before dark, then spent a restless night punctuated by roadtrains roaring by only a few metres away. Luckily, the parking bay was little used overnight, probably because of its relative proximity to Katherine, and in the morning Karen and I both felt surprisingly fit after our previous long day.

The tailwind was still with us as we rode out of the parking bay after another early start. As the day wore on the countryside became increasingly scenic. As we approached the Victoria River valley, mesas and conical hills dotted the landscape. Around mid morning a medium sized bird zoomed in low over our right shoulders to land on the highway about fifty metres ahead of us. As we approached it both Karen and I realised that we were looking at a new bird. Before it flew away seconds later, we had our only sighting ever of an Australian Pratincole.

Morning tea was a comedy of errors. A sign announced a rest area at Sullivan's Jump Up, but the road in looked very rocky so I suggested to Karen that there was probably an alternate way in at the other end and that we should use it instead. We topped a rise and hurtled down a long hill - obviously the jump up. At the base of the hill a second dirt road led into the rest area. It was better than the first road, but not much, and we soon found that it climbed back up the hill we had just come down. At the top, under a large roof which provided an excellent breeze-way, we found an information board about the nearby Keep River and Gregory national parks. I put our solar battery charger out in the sun while we had our cuppas and read the information.

We drenched our shirts prior to leaving and rode out on the much shorter access road at the top of the hill. Just before going down the big hill again, I realised I had left the battery charger behind, so I got Karen to hold my bike as I embarked on a small cross country run back to the shelter. I thought it was just off the road, but it turned out to be about three hundred metres away. By the time I got back to Karen and the bikes, I was hot and bothered again, my shirt had dried completely and I felt like a complete idiot. I would have liked another break, but I did not dare suggest it.

At 1pm - after four and a half hours and ninety four kilometres of riding - we crossed over the Victoria River and arrived at the roadhouse. After setting up the tent and having lunch we walked back across the bridge and climbed up to the escarpment for fantastic, extensive views across the valley. Late in the afternoon we returned to the camping area to be entertained by masses of corellas. They would all be settled comfortably in the trees around the roadhouse, and then an invisible signal would send them into a frenzy, with hundreds of them taking flight simultaneously, screeching raucously.

Karen on the Victoria River escarpment

For one of the few times in my life I managed a completely undisturbed night's sleep. Karen, however, told me in the morning that she thought she had heard birds moving about in the branches overhanging our tent during the night. When I removed the ground sheet which we always used to cover our bikes, I found my rear left pannier looking like the body of John Hurt after the Alien had burst out. A two inch hole in the top of the pannier was filled with an eruption of tattered, white plastic.

Closer investigation revealed the actual story. Karen's "birds" of the night before had actually been some sort of rat, native or otherwise. It had eaten through the thick canvas flap at the top of the pannier, then through the nylon cover underneath, neatly severing the drawstring in two places. It had then ripped its way through a garbage bag liner which we used to waterproof the contents of the panniers, a white plastic shopping bag and another plastic bag to get at its prize - the bread that Geoff had given us at 62 Mile Crossing. Little pellets attesting to its enjoyment of the meal were scattered about the opening on top of the pannier.

Karen realised that when we had been on the east coast, it had only been on the rare occasions when we were carrying bread that we had been bothered by possums. Now it had happened again, but this time the culprit had been a rat. What is it about bread that makes it so irresistible to our fauna? Is it because it is the food that possums are usually fed, and rats usually find in our garbage bins? I had no idea. All I knew was I had a big hole in my pannier, and the repair could wait until Timber Creek.

The excellent scenery persisted as we rode out of Victoria River but the valley soon widened to distant ranges. At thirty kilometres Karen complained that she was feeling sluggish, and her pace slowed down markedly. Well over an hour later, at fifty seven kilometres, we had morning tea at the Kuwang Lookout overlooking the Stokes Range and found the cause of Karen's tiredness - her rear tyre was flat. The leak was slow, so I pumped up the tyre to get us back on the road, and only had to pump it up a couple of more times on our way to Timber Creek.

Twenty five kilometres out of Timber Creek we rode through strange, limestone-like horizontal bands of rock, stepped at about three metre intervals up the hills, looking for all the world like the pyramids from Central America. It was a weird scene.

After three long days of riding and almost three hundred kilometres covered, it was time for a break. We booked into the Circle F caravan park at Timber Creek for two nights with a rest day sandwiched in between. We also booked two tickets on Max's croc tour. After a swim in the caravan park pool I fixed Karen's tyre, finding a hole in the glueless patch. This would become a common fault with this type of patch, with some repairs eventually requiring a patch atop a patch atop a patch.

At 5pm a guy wandered through the camping area announcing a crocodile feeding at a bridge over a small, clear creek at the bottom of the caravan park. Three resident freshwater crocodiles, each about two metres long, materialised from nowhere to gulp down the first few pieces of chicken thrown to them. Obviously well fed, the crocs soon disdained the free food unless it was lobbed right next to their jaws. If they had to move a few feet to get it, they just did not want it. Lazy buggers. We spent the evening reading, writing up the diary and doing cryptic crosswords while sitting under a fluorescent light next to a small sewerage treatment plant surrounded by hordes of flying insects and the smoke from a mozzie coil we had found.

One of the freshwater crocodiles

The croc tour with Geoff lasted about four hours and included a short historical tour of the town with a visit to the old police station and a pioneer's grave under a boab tree. About fifteen fellow tourists then boarded the Fleetwing, a glorified tinny, for the trip down the river to meet three big salties - Squizzy, about three metres long, Willy, also about three metres who was made to jump for his breakfast on the muddy river bank, and Dundee, a great name for a four metre crocodile. The latter was fed in the middle of the river with slices of meat on bread rafts, but only if he was quicker than a pair of kites also keen on a feed.

Squizzy - a saltwater crocodile

Geoff had set up a permanent camp on an island in the river where we had morning tea from a billy and listened to a history lesson on the cattle drovers who opened up the country. The tour finished off with a whip-cracking demonstration and a high speed trip back to town.

One day in Timber Creek exhausts all of its tourist possibilities. Kununurra was two hundred and thirty kilometres away, so we knew we were in for two long, hot days of cycling when we rode out the following day. The easterly had decided on a rest day as well, but despite the still conditions we managed fifty eight kilometres by 10am when we stopped for morning tea at a rest area on the East Baines River. Because we were still in the Northern Territory, the rest area had a water tank which Karen and I used to soak our shirts for the first time that day. The day had turned hot as usual, but although a number of creeks and water holes had presented themselves along the highway, we had avoided them all, wary of what might be lurking beneath them. We were already conscious of the dangers presented by salt water crocodiles, and the tour at Timber Creek had reinforced the message. It was not until after morning tea, at the West Baines River, that we found a natural body of water safe enough to approach with confidence.

A good tailwind picked up after morning tea, pushing us along at a good rate to eventually give us an average for the day of twenty three kilometres per hour. Two memorable occurrences had occurred along the way. The first was a road sign indicating the track to Bulloo River, the home of the celebrated Australian author Sara Henderson. When we had read her first book - From Strength to Strength - Bulloo had seemed like the most remote property in Australia. It now seemed crazy that Karen and I were actually riding bicycles through the same country! We commemorated the event with a photograph.

The turn-off to Bullo

Our second main memory of the day was the highway itself. At one point it narrowed to a single-laned strip of tar barely wide enough to accommodate a car, let alone a road train. This stretch of road went on for three or four kilometres. Karen and I increased our pace to get through the dangerous section as quickly as possible.

We reached our intended overnight stop at Salt Creek after one hundred and seventeen kilometres and five hours of riding. Salt Creek is a rest area with a shaded table and a tank. While we were having a late lunch an old prospector returning to Darwin from Kalgoorlie drove into the rest area and said g'day. He then took a small canister from his pocket, opened it up and dumped about sixteen or seventeen small gold nuggets on the table in front of us. One or two fell onto the ground and were hastily retrieved. He was very proud of his riches, worth about four hundred dollars, and was looking forward to returning to Western Australia in the near future. Karen and I have never met anyone with the light of gold fever burning so brightly within as this old bloke, so we did not ask him how much money he had spent on petrol during the eight thousand kilometre round trip.

The prospector soon jumped in his car and took off, but he was back a few minutes later saying that one nugget was missing. We searched the area around the table but did not find the alleged missing gold. To this day the old bloke probably thinks we stole it.

During the afternoon I set up my solar battery charger on a forty four gallon drum adjacent to the picnic table, trying to top up our torch batteries. After lunch Karen and I pushed our bikes about a hundred metres into the bush at the back of the rest area, about halfway to a small escarpment, where we later intended to set up the tent. The rest of the afternoon was spent exploring the cliffline and climbing to vantage points for views over the surrounding countryside. While we were away we saw a couple of cars come and go from the rest area. It was not until darkness was falling that I remembered the battery charger. It was gone when we returned to the table at dinner time. Bloody excellent, I thought. It had been nothing but trouble since I got it! It had never worked very well, it was extra weight to carry, and I was always forgetting it. I made a note to myself to "lose" our combined torch/fluorescent light/emergency flasher as well because it was not much good either.

Apart from one car which made camp in the rest area sometime around midnight, our night was undisturbed. In the morning we packed up before dawn and pushed our bikes down to the rest area table for breakfast. The car that came in overnight was a beaut - a Holden panel van with a zebra stripe paint job. Until we left just before 7:30am, we saw no signs of life from within the car. Whoever was in there must have been sweltering, because the morning was so hot that Karen and I soaked our shirts prior to beginning riding.

We had originally planned to spend a day or two at the Keep River national park near the Western Australia border. This plan was quickly discarded when Karen's "female problems" kicked in, and given the heat of the day and her previous reactions to it, we opted instead to head straight for Kununurra.

The temperature was hovering around forty degrees Celsius in the shade, not that there was any. Our shirts soon dried out. We re-soaked them at thirty five kilometres at the Keep River, but they were dry again by our morning tea stop at forty seven kilometres. With the change in our plans came the need to eat as much of our fresh food as possible, because it would be confiscated at the border. An hour later we arrived at the check point where a rest area had been conveniently situated just across from the gates. After checking what we could and could not take into Western Australia, Karen and I proceeded to eat all of our cabbage, tomatoes, cucumbers and oranges before crossing the border.

We again saturated our shirts before riding on. The cooling effect must have been remarkable, because we left the Northern Territory at 1pm and arrived in Kununurra, forty two kilometres later at 1:30pm, giving us an average speed of over eighty kilometres per hour for the section! This incredible time might also have been due to the change in the time zones at the border when we set our watches back an hour and a half...

Despite the heat and Karen's condition, we averaged twenty two real kilometres per hour during our five hours of riding. At Kununurra we shopped for fresh food - for some reason we seemed to have run out - then had our usual soft drink before riding out to the Kimberleyland caravan park and spending the afternoon in and around its pool.

It had now been two weeks since we had left Darwin. During that time we had ridden over nine hundred kilometres, almost as far as Sydney to Brisbane, and averaged over eighty two kilometres per day. The weather had been monotonously tropical, with bright sunshine and temperatures around the century on the old scale every day. We hoped for more of the same, because Kununurra was a major destination for us and we planned to spend a bit of time here.

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