Karen and I had cycled only four hundred and twenty eight since Melbourne, but we had ridden on eight consecutive days. It was time for a break, and with the caravan park so nice, Warrnambool was the ideal location. The weather, however, did not co-operate. Our first day of rest dawned wet and overcast, with a sharp breeze blowing in from the Southern Ocean. Undaunted, we walked and waded to Middle Island for a close look at some fairy penguins in their burrows, adding another bird to our list. Then it was into town amidst frequent showers to do the chores - shopping for food, a spare tyre and two tubes, a pair of shoes for Karen, and sending my sad, busted camera back to Sydney for Kevin to arrange a fix.
We spent most of the afternoon, and almost all of the next day in the campers kitchen at the caravan park, writing letters, watching television, maintaining the bikes and checking to see if the rain had stopped. It hadn't. Jeff Kennett won the Victorian state election and the Brisbane Bears thrashed Footscray in the AFL.
By the third day we were stir crazy and ready for the road. Rejuvenated by an extra hour's sleep due to the end of daylight saving, Karen and I rode out of Warrnambool into a strong, north-westerly headwind and occasional showers. To escape the wind for a while we detoured to Tower Hill, a remnant volcano and crater-lake being restored to its natural state after being laid waste by overgrazing. Incredibly, the plants and trees being used in the restoration were chosen from an extraordinarily detailed painting dating from the nineteenth century. We spent a couple of hours walking around the national park and talking to a ranger at its information centre about the capture and relocation of koalas whose burgeoning population was causing havoc. After spotting two more new birds - the Cape Barren goose and the yellow billed spoonbill - and riding to a lookout for photos of the crater, we returned to the highway and continued westward.
The wind had not abated. Port Fairy is less than thirty kilometres from Warrnambool, but at times it seemed unreachable, as our speed dropped below ten kilometres per hour on the flat. Three hours to do thirty kilometres into a roaring headwind was not pleasant riding, but we swapped leads regularly, kept our heads down and soldiered on, eventually arriving at Port Fairy. Faced with a choice of caravan parks, we opted for one with a games room. Portland, our next destination, was over seventy kilometres away and too far to attempt in the winds we were battling. We needed a comfortable location to hole up and wait for the wind to abate.
April Fools Day 1995 was ushered in by strong, overnight winds which continued undiminished all day. Rainclouds gave way to sunny breaks in the morning, providing pleasant conditions in sheltered spots. Making the most of our forced detention, Karen and I walked into the pretty, historic town and followed a self-guided walk around its Irish style, one hundred and fifty year old buildings. After a muscle-restoring lunch of pies and cream buns we returned to the caravan park and read until evening, venturing out to watch short-tailed shearwaters do battle with the ever-present wind as they returned to their burrows on Griffith Island.
We stayed at the caravan park all of the next day, braving the elements for morning tea, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner, but retreating to the games room to shelter from the wind and rain between times. April 3rd was overcast and cold but the wind had shifted to the south-west and did not seem as strong as the past few days. Was it abating, or were we merely getting used to it? A seventy six kilometre day to Portland, divided into three equal stretches between major breaks, provided the answer. The wind had remained in our faces and was as big a pain as usual, but it had definitely been lighter. Thank goodness!
We watched a video on Portland at its information centre then set up camp in a caravan park right in the middle of town. After a cold and rainy night, Karen and I decided to ride on. We did a brief cycling tour of the town and then headed west through regular light showers over a mixture of hills and gentler undulations. Pine forests lined the road, and we were surprised to see emus in the cleared sections. It must have been the day for Australian native animals, because on three separate occasions we also saw echidnas too - quite a rare event.
After seventy eight kilometres we arrived in the small town of Nelson. Next morning - Good Friday - we left our bikes at the pub and took a cruise up the Nelson River, crossing into South Australia and then back into Victoria along the way. The boat stopped at the Princess Margaret Rose caves, but Karen and I had seen plenty of other caves in our time and decided to save the entrance money for something else. Back in Nelson we lunched by the river then rode out of town with a following wind, soon entering South Australia for the third time today. Now that we had some help from the elements, I wanted to head straight for Mount Gambier, but Karen talked me into detouring down to Piccaninny Ponds - a conservation park on the coast where fresh subterranean water comes to the surface in a series of cold, deep, clear pools. The underwater photographs we had seen were really impressive, but without scuba gear or even snorkels, we had no way to see for ourself. We spent a free night at the coastal campground, spotting beautiful firetails when we walked down to the beach late in the afternoon.
Setting our watches back half an hour due to the time change at the border helped Karen and I to an early start the next morning. Yesterday's tailwind had disappeared, replaced by a south-westerly that would be across us for most of the overcast day. We detoured to Mount Schank, an extinct volcano only nine thousand years old. After a morning tea at its base, we climbed to the rim for an imposing view down into the deep, grassy bowl of the crater.
Upon entering Mount Gambier a little later, we cycled around Blue Lake before lunching at the information centre and visiting McDonalds for a thirty cent ice-cream. I pumped up my flat back tyre for a quick trip to a nearby caravan park, setting up our tent between a couple from Bendigo who were in town for a weekend of speedway action, and a small collection of tents which housed about fifteen dogs, their owners keen followers of the dog show circuit. The caravan park did not normally allow dogs in the park, but on this one weekend every year it relaxed its regulations to accommodate the dramatic influx of dog owners. There must have been about sixty dogs in the park. Karen and I were expecting a lot of noise from them, but the dogs must have either been de-barked or very well trained because we hardly heard a peep out of them - with one exception. Early in the morning a very small dog with a very tiny bark, sounding something like a rat coughing, decided it would voice its disapproval of a passer-by. Karen and I were in the tent only about twenty metres away, and barely noticed the barking, but we nearly hit the roof of the tent when the dog's owner - a burly middle-aged woman built like a brick outhouse - bellowed at the top of her lungs for the dog to shut up, effectively waking everyone in the caravan park, and half the people in the nearby cemetery as well.
Easter Sunday was spent on a walking tour of the lakes and caves of Mount Gambier. Karen and I walked out to the entrance to the Englebrecht Cave but baulked at the price of admission. The town has beautiful natural features available for free, so we saw no need to pay for a look at a cave. We walked around Valley Lake to the Centenary Tower, then descended to have lunch by the shores of the lake. In the evening we walked out to Umpherston Cave, and were very impressed. I would guess we walked about twenty five kilometres in total during the day - not unusual for one of our "rest" days when we really appreciate getting off the bikes for a while.
The day had been cool and overcast with occasional showers, but as night closed in a strong south-westerly wind kicked in. The barbecue area in the caravan park had a roof but no walls, so I grabbed four octopus straps - normally used to tie bags and panniers to the bikes - and erected our groundsheet as a windbreak. We had tried to take as many multi-functional items as possible with us, and the groundsheet at various times was used as an overhead shelter from the rain, a shelter from the sun, a windbreak, a bike cover and a groundsheet.
The following day was a ripper. After a breakfast of McMuffins and coffee at McDonalds, Karen and I powered out of Mount Gambier and headed inland, the wind that had started the night before pushing us along at a rapid rate. We covered the fifty one kilometres to Penola in two hours - our best two hour total up to that point of the trip. We could not resist a visit to the Wynn's Coonawarra Estate, trying but not buying their entire range. Wine tasting is an activity fraught with danger for Karen and myself - we might begin to appreciate the more expensive wines and be no longer able to stomach the low cost, low quality wines that make up so much of our drinking patterns.
I fixed yet another flat tyre caused by the Mr Tuffy tyre liners, again taping the ends to prevent a recurrence. Then it was back to the road to make use of the wind as we continued north for another two hours to arrive at the Naracoorte Caves campground. The further inland we rode, the less the wind blew, but we still managed one hundred kilometres in about four hours - a record that would not be topped for quite a while. We were visited by possums in the evening and wondered if they would be as bad as their east coast cousins, but they were no trouble at all overnight.
Two families travelling together, one from Bacchus Marsh and one from Melbourne, invited us over for coffee in the morning and claimed a special place in our hearts by offering us toast as well. Karen and I rarely carried bread, almost never toasted it when we did, and had no margarine or butter to spread on it anyhow, so toast was something we really missed.
After declining cave tours on the Nelson River cruise and in Mount Gambier, Karen and decided to take a tour at the famous Naracoorte Caves. We parted with some money and visited the Victoria Fossil Cave and the Alexandra Cave - both pretty good. After having morning tea while waiting for the tent to dry, we quickly packed and raced an approaching storm into Naracoorte itself, arriving only minutes before the sky opened up. Karen rang yet another number we had been given by travellers on the Queensland leg of our trip - this time Paul and Thelma, whom we had met at Crystal Creek and who had taken us on a day trip up to Paluma. After the rain had gone we headed west towards their property in the town of Lucindale.
Halfway through the afternoon, we stopped for a mid-afternoon stretch break. Karen had just returned from the bushes and was holding my bike while I went about my business. I was concentrating on watering a particularly dry section of dirt when I looked up to find about fifty cows gazing at me. They were congregated in a shady corner of a paddock, up against the fence, slowly chewing and staring, the way cows do. I laughed to myself at the ridiculousness of the situation, and compounded it by my exclamation of "Hey girls, check this out!"
The cows were singularly unimpressed. Not one batted an eyelid. As we were riding away from the encounter, I noticed some well-endowed bulls in an adjacent paddock, and thanked my lucky stars that cows cannot laugh.
Paul and Thelma were an inspirational couple. Their garden had originally been an enormous pit, left over from a sand quarry. Through the planting of an incredible number of different species of Australian native plants, and a huge amount of hard work, this sandy hole in the ground had been transformed into a work of art. It has been featured in magazines describing the best gardens in the country, and attracts hundreds of people on those occasions when Thelma has an open day. We saw it in late Autumn, when most of its plants were no longer flowering, and it was still excellent. We will return there in some future Spring to see it in all its glory.
During our five day stay with Paul and Thelma, we often hand-fed the superb blue wrens and yellow robins on the back patio, while a variety of honeyeaters and parrots flocked to a couple of bird feeders strung up nearby. Paul is something of a photographer, and many of his bird pictures have been published in magazines.
Paul and Thelma, both retired, had plenty of time to show us the sights of the area. Karen and I were driven out to a bush conservation park on our first full day at Lucindale, and the following day visited Bool Lagoon, a large wetland area that is often covered with huge numbers of birds. A couple of dry seasons had caused a dramatic reduction in the bird populations, but in the evening Paul showed us a series of slides of the 1992 nesting season when conditions had been ideal. We also visited Pat and Jack Bourne who owned a property near the lagoon and who were trying to establish a tourist business based around Jack's hobby of stuffing birds. Pat showed us their collection, explaining the entire process from go to whoa. With few exceptions, the birds were all presented very well, with a couple of the larger raptors being particularly good.
Our last full day with Thelma and Paul was spent on a big drive down to the coast at Robe, where we spent an hour or two touring the town. We lunched on fish and chips and hamburgers at the Little Dip Conservation Park just outside the town, before continuing on to Nora Creina and then to Beachport, the home of Paul and Thelma's son Peter and his wife Di. Peter is a crayfisherman and he explained the industry to us over a beautiful dinner of lobster. Karen really liked the coast around Beachport and was tempted to add it to her list of favourite places, but the ever-present wind that plagues the entire western Victorian and southern South Australian coast would prevent us from ever living there.
On our fourth night with Paul and Thelma, Karen and I decided that we would leave the next day. A change hit just after midnight, with attendant rain showers and gale force westerly winds. The weather was really bad, but I insisted we stick to our plans to move on despite offers to stay as long as we liked. I did not want to wear out our welcome. Just out of Lucindale we were drenched by a short, fierce rain shower. Shortly afterwards, and only five kilometres out of town, I flatted. Karen took an excellent photo of me standing beside the road, Elle lying flat beside me, the offending bike tube in my hand, and the huge, black thunderhead that had just passed looming menacingly in the background. After fixing the Mr Tuffy flat, Karen and I swapped five kilometre leads, with the rider behind finding protection in the front rider's wind-shadow. At one point we were forced to stop and seek shelter behind a couple of trees as a storm passed over us, the wind driving the rain almost horizontal.
Fixing the flat outside Lucindale
As we neared the coast the winds strengthened and our speed was cut back to about ten kilometres per hour. Because this would mean half an hour at a time in the lead, which would have been impossible in the conditions, we reduced the lead distance to two kilometres - twelve minutes - but this proved too long as well. Karen and I were finally swapping leads every kilometre, and it was only our arrival in Kingston that prevented this from being reduced even further. These would be the strongest winds we ever rode against, producing an average speed of less than fifteen kilometres per hour for the fifty seven kilometre day.
When we rolled up to his office, the manager of the Kingston caravan park directed us to a grassy area, protected by trellis fencing, right next to the camper's kitchen. He did not usually allow people to camp there but the wind was absolutely howling and he could appreciate our predicament. He volunteered the site immediately. We spent the evening sheltering from the wind and rain, reading and writing up the diary. Although the latter was always my job, on rare occasions Karen would write a sentence or two as well. On this day she wrote "Bloody tough day. Might be here for a few days." Karen is not fond of wind.
A rest day was not really needed after four days with Paul and Thelma and only one day of riding, but Karen got her wish. The rain and strong winds had not gone away by the next day, but we walked out to the Butcher's Gap Conservation Park anyhow, hoping to see a few new birds. Not only did we not see any new birds, we hardly saw any old ones either! The wetlands were dry, despite the rain, and every bird in the area was sheltering from the elements - obviously more intelligent than the two bird watchers trying to spot them. We arrived back at the caravan park after three fruitless hours.
After lunch we toured the lighthouse next door. It had formerly been situated eight kilometres off the coast of Cape Jaffa, about twenty five kilometres to the south west, and had been dismantled and re-built in Kingston after its unmanned replacement had become operational. While thirty nine metres above the ground on the observation platform atop the lighthouse, I noticed a new bird in the bushes below - the spiny cheeked honeyeater. No new birds in the conservation area, one new bird in the lighthouse. So it goes.
The weather was still bad the following day, with overcast skies, rain in the area and a wind from the south-west. We packed up the tent and rode into Kingston to shop, spotting purple-crowned lorikeets in the trees at the side of the road. After taking a photo of the Big Lobster on the north side of town, we were off towards the Coorong, a long, narrow stretch of dune-lined coastal waterway bounded by the Younghusband peninsula on one side and the Princes Highway on the other.
We were stopped at a parking bay for morning tea when a caravan pulled up. Its occupants saw us with our binoculars looking for birds and invited us into their van to view their feather collection. Meg and Jack from Kempsey had feathers from almost as many birds as we had seen! And what a great thing for us to collect, we thought. Feathers weigh hardly anything! During the conversation we somehow mentioned our Freedom Island holiday and learned that Meg and Jack were good friends of the managers of the island, the same couple who had looked after us when we had been there. Yet another coincidence was added to our growing list.
We postponed our lunch until after we arrived at 42 Mile Crossing - a ford across the Coorong with a campground on the other side. As so often happens after the discovery of a new bird, we saw heaps more of them almost immediately. Spiny cheeked honey-eaters abounded around the campsite, and we saw lots more on a walk that took us through the dunes to the ocean and then back out onto the dry bed of the Coorong. We had a table and shelter to use for dinner, but a lack of light and battery life meant an early night.
We broke camp in between showers the following morning, hitting the road before eight with an excellent following breeze. Salt Creek and Policeman's Point soon came and went. I noticed my rear tyre needed air as we passed through a dot on the map named McGrath's Flat - an apt name in the circumstances. When I tried to pump up the tyre, I found that the valve did not work, so I installed another tube. I changed the tyre at the same time. It had become rather bald since replacing the blown tyre at Chiltern.
Although we did not know it at the time, this small combination of circumstances would have dire consequences for us later in the trip.