The coldest I get now is warm. Just a shade under lukewarm. Cold, as in that feeling of chill, or the refreshing sensation on your tongue as cold drink passes through, is but a memory. One that’s fading fast.
I am officially in the ‘hot’: the hot time of year, the hot area, the hot temperature, the hot air ground and any surface water. Even water from an ostensibly ‘cold’ tap, the one marked with a ‘C’ or has a blue ring around it, is at best luke warm and more frequently very warm to hot. I rarely use a ‘hot’ tap. No need.
Rob, who not only guided me across the Nullarbor is also solely responsible for me being in Oodnadatta. Despite his occasional eccentricities (I, of course, have none … ) and his periodic cantankerousness (whereas I’m always mild and congenial) he expanded the scope of my adventurousness significantly. For one, he’s been here looong before me. Part of my let down in Marree stems from his evident enjoyment there. The so-called ‘stubby-cooler’ he treasures enough to carry on his bike comes from Marree.
When I look at the map of Australia now and think of routes, journeys and destinations I am liberated from conforming to main arterial links. I look instead for the vague barely discernible light gray line which snakes all over the place and connects towns and locations only ever in the national narrative when some freak weather event happens or Hollywood makes some movie. The line is frequently dashed which means track. I am very familiar now with just what the cartographic signature of the various transport routes translate too when on the ground.
Asphalt is fast, easy, with plenty of traveller related infrastructure. It’s also full of Large Metal Objects and (Australian) drivers who cannot for the life of them fathom that it is actually a Human Being that’s on that spindly wobbly weaving two thin-wheeled device gingerly trying to avoid The Drop Off where asphalt gives way to gravel shoulder. They will give another Large Metal Object a wide, wide berth. But me? Sometimes I can run my fingers along the length of their Large Metal Object’s sides. Apparently scratching their Large Metal Object along another Large Metal Object needs to be avoided. But swatting a cyclist into the dust or worse, much, much worse is OK. After all a real man/woman drives a Toyota. No one here seems to know what rides a bike, after all we Cyclists are “mad”, the most frequent adjective used to describe me and all other cyclists.
Besides it is just a lot more fun to ride the back-tracks. Harder, hotter, colder, dustier, stonier, sandier, plagued by corrugations, lacking any amenities for long, long distances, hillier, more undulating, but still more fun. Occasionally I even see someone.
Yesterday, for example, the 4th December, crawling – and I really mean crawling – along a most gruesome Oodnadatta track from Peake Creek to Oodnadatta, I had just finished my lunch in the shade of a rare tree close enough to the road that I didn’t have to brutally push Dreamer & Ziflex through powder soft ground when I heard a most uncommon sound. Like, that of a motorcycle. Sure enough I could see through the trees to the curve in the track where it goes over yet another abominable river/creek crossing washed out, en-stoned/ver-stoned/over-stoned, with 20 cm or more of soft dry very unconsolidated sand. There was something glinting.
Eventually a motorcycle made its way around. A road bike, complete with road tires and not a shred of modification to endure a track like the Oodnadatta.
Turns out the riders are French. That figures. No Australian would ever take such a bike on such a track. Michel and Beatrice recognised that it was not quite the track they thought it would be. And gave me a bottle of water. It was 43 C on my handle-bar Garmin and I was very happy for the extra water. I was/am really impressed by Michel’s riding skills and Beatrice’s trust in him. There were some pretty challenging sections the last 70 km into Oodnadatta. Several ground me to a lurching swearing sweating halt and I pushed/pulled Dreamer through. Others I simply didn’t try to ride through recognising it would be impossible if not downright risky. And in one I was tossed off as the sand won. No damage, no injury but it was a salient reminder to be vigilant and careful. Sand is the Bike Killer.
Waaay back, the 1st December I rolled out of Marree before 0600. I had to jettison one of my five-litre hard plastic containers. The cap leaked. A little but a leak non-the-less. I transferred the water to the Sea to Summit bladder, then left.
Any dream of an easy day evaporated in the face of strong south-south-westerly cross-headwinds. The track was fine. Stony and sandy in places. Traffic? That’s on the asphalt 150 km to the West. Here I am alone.
Except for the kestrels. Seems the Oodnadatta track is divided into Kestrel territories. There always seemed to be one overhead. I would see their shadows on the track, criss-crossing me. Looking up sometimes they are barely ten metres above me. I’m glad there are no vultures in Australia for my kestrel is awaiting road kill. Or in my case, death by road, which is different. Or perhaps I’m being unfair. Perhaps they are keeping me company. After all, no one else is, not even flies. The headwind is that strong.
I plod. No other word for it. 11 kph moving speed. My overall average, that which takes into account stoppages and the like is below 8 kph. The terrain is consistently if gently negative, as in downhill. Lord knows what it’d be like if it were uphill.
Ninety-two kilometres later I’m at the Lake Eyre South official lookout. It has a roofed information area. The wind still howls but I doze in my Helinox groundchair for a good half an hour. Lake Eyre is Australia’s lowest point and I am currently -7 meters below sealevel! Temperature is in the mid 30s in the sun. Not so hot. Still, it is a taxing day and I am concerned about what kind of place I’ll end up camping. Some shade would be very, very nice. Regardless I’m going to have to plan for gale-force winds whence camped.
Water consumption is going well, like 1 ltr/30 km. I’ve shitloads on the bike, nearly 20 litres. I don’t know what to expect so have erred deeply on the side of caution. Rob, I’m sure, would laugh since he’s a minimalist cyclists.
After 10 hours of riding I have crossed the 100 km mark. I’m tired and the day’s end is rapidly approaching. Ideally I’d like to do 110 or more, for the psychological milestone of having gotten over the half-way mark. Where am I to camp, with this wind seemingly determined to endure?
A house appears, a hundred meters off the road. It doesn’t look occupied. Abandoned houses can be life-savers. Turns out it’s the Old Ghan Railway’s Curdimurka Rail Siding. Virtually intact. With water tank. Can’t resist.
I camp inside a sort of enclosed veranda section. The tank has water in it. Probably deadly to drink but perfect for a cool-wash down.
The gale intensifies during the night. At midnight I’m awoken by the sheer scale of it. I reassure myself that this building has stood the test of time. There’s no particular reason to suspect the roof will fly off in this gale. I am so extremely happy I could sleep inside and I spare a grateful thanks to my Earth Mother Queen for engineering the entire Australian railway heroes of Olde to put a resilient railway siding 102 km and pretty much half way between Marree and William Creek for me to camp in during a howling gale.
Australia’s Great Artesian Basin – check out it’s stats at https://www.environment.gov.au/water/environment/great-artesian-basin – has numerous discharge points along the Oodnadatta track. Places where 2 million year old water bubbles to the surface. It’s kept Aborigines alive for millennia. It kept the early white explorers alive too. Funnily enough contemporary Australian wisdom is that this water cannot be drunk. I struggle with the logic and wisdom of my contemporaries. Why, goes my reasoning, has the 2 million year old water suddenly got so undrinkable in the last 150 years?
Where the water bubbles up are called Mound Springs. They are dotted around the place. Two famous ones, the Bubbler and the Blanche Cup lie five kilometres off the Oodnadatta.
I do the maths. That’s another ten kilometres to my day. At a minimum another hour on the track. But today, unlike yesterday, is marked by tailwinds. Not over-the-top tailwinds. Delightful tailwinds. I don’t have to worry about finding a campsite. I don’t have to worry about cooking either.
Amazing places. Easy to see how and why the Aborigines thought them sacred. The are sacred.
And what did the explorers do? Desecrated them. As one of the info-boards tell, when their sacred sites were desecrated, the vegetation including sacred trees reduced to firewood, their water befouled by stock, their game slaughtered by highly-efficient firearms they gave up their timeless social, political and economic practices perfectly in tune with the environment, for were they not they would perish, and migrated to the fringes of white society to eke out an existence bearing little relation to their ancient culture. The explorers, the pastoralists who followed them, the railway men, the telegraph men and the people of the remote settlements are all regarded as heroes.
The aborigines? They don’t even get their own name. Aboriginal is after all a generic term denoting a people native/indigenous to a region. There are Canadian Aborigines too. They are but a footnote in the narrative of white exploration and development of Australia.
As I ride through this land I can’t help consider that everything l see, the sky, the clouds, the weather, the landmarks, the creeks and rivers, the plants, the birds insects and animals will all have an Aboriginal name. And none are used. We just completely ignored their nomenclature and claimed right of first discoverer to name everything. In truth it was already named. I miss those names. There’s something ridiculous with various Anglo-Saxon names applied to the wild vast country and its occupants I am riding through.
This is an ancient Native-(Pre-)Australian land and I really think we should begin the arduous task of renaming it according to they who’ve lived here far longer than we have in Europa.
So go my thoughts as I ride along, pushed by a delightful tailwind after the Bubbler and the Blanche Cup mound springs.
116 km after Curdimurka I arrive in William Creek where I am confronted with a similar attitude to that I encountered Marree. I need to consider that perhaps it’s really me. The person I talk to is not Australian and I wonder if that’s it. In Marree there was a German. Here she sounds Irish. She talks so fast I barely understand everything.
Like Marree, after a while she lightens up and I actually begin to feel welcome. Sort of. I don’t argue the water thing. I buy 10 litres at 16$, a bunch 1.5 litre bottles to make up for the loss of my five litre container. Costs me a fortune, a 600 ml bottle goes for 4.50$, but it’s not something I can do without and I can’t be bothered trying to turn their logic. I find some big rainwater tanks but the water doesn’t taste good and I don’t have the time to filter it. I’m here for one night and I want to get organised then rest.
3 December sees me outside the William Creek Hotel at 0515 awaiting a very kind Dave, the local Lake Eyre sightseeing pilot who graciously offered to hand me my cooler bag at 0530. Despite paying 75$ for a tiny airconditioned room with shared facilities, there is no fridge I can use so it’s been in the hotel’s fridge for the night.
I expect the tailwind of yesterday to morph into a north-north-easterly which I’m sure you all know means it’s coming off the desert. I’ll be climbing pretty much all day into a headwind off a desert. Interesting.
A kestrel too.
And me and my long, long shadow.
I still have a mild tailwind …
Fortunately there are fewer photo-ops as I ride. It’s a vast, vast landscape with alluring topographic features dotted around the horizon, blazing colours no healthy productive earth can ever be – burnt reds, deep purples, ochres. The ground itself is fantastically fine, finer than talcum powered. Covered with fist sized rocks oxidised in those amazing colours. Whatever nutrients and goodness were in these soils have long gone. All the lakes are brilliant white: salts following the evaporation of whatever little water eventually makes its way there. It’s not a dead land, but you have to damned good to know how to survive here. Credit to them Native-(Pre-)Australians for working it out. I just wonder how many perished before they did work it out.
Periodically I stumble across water.
Perhaps in a cattle trough fed by gravity from huge tanks on a hill which are inturn fed by solar-powered pump. I stick my large plastic bowl under the outlet. It tastes minerally and a bit salty but it also tastes good. I give myself a good dunking, soaking all my clothes. Dreamer’s parked 200 m away. I’m almost completely dry by the time I ride again.
It may be a stock dam just off the road. I walk the 150 metres, crossing a fence or two. The birdlife here is impressive and suggests this is good water. As does the vivid green foliage of the trees and vegetation around it set off against bright red sand dunes and spectacularly blue sky. The water tastes amazing. It’s still early in the day and I’ve plenty on Dreamer. I douse myself liberally again and again are pretty much dry by the time I ride.
It may be the dam and Beresford. Another former Ghan Railway siding. A huge if murky dam.
It may be another tank fed from what bore I don’t know. But there’s water coming out of the tank’s overflow pipe and I shower. Fully clothed.
It may indeed be a hot day. But I am keeping well hydrated and certainly enjoying my periodic cool-downs.
I am doing some solid kilometres with a wind that remains benevolent on an uphill grade which is tolerable.
It’s getting to consider campsite location time again. I’ve studied the map very carefully along with a brochure produced by the Pink Roadhouse in Oodnadatta. Very handy. The only shade is in the creeks. Between creeks is gibber plain, those fist sized rocks on very fine silty ground. It would be brutal to camp on the gibber.
The 100 km mark comes and goes. I am 30 km from Peake Creek. Apparently Peake Creek is a “Salty wet creek with steep banks”. Very tempting. And still 30 km from where I am. Should I make it, it will not only mean about 77 km tomorrow, an easy day’s ride, it will be the most kilometres I’ll have ridden in a day. Not bad considering it’s a gravel road. And hot, hovering around the high 30s and early 40s.
In fact I am so used to high 30s by now it doesn’t register when it goes above that mystical 37.7 C line any more.
I make to Peake Creek. I swim, or rather lie in it. My own private swimming pool, albeit a bit muddy in places. It’s minerally and saline, but drinkable. I find a funny little flat spot to put my ground sheet and sleeping bag. With surface water I’m expecting mosquitoes so I set up the mozzy-net. I’m in bed before 2100 under an amazing sky and no wind. There are no mozzies, though a road-train passed shortly before I go to bed.
With but 77 km to go and what I assume will be track conditions similar to those I had today I don’t set the alarm, believing I not only deserve a lie in, but I won’t be punished for such luxury by being confronted with an awful day.
Still, come the 4th, I’m on the track just after 0700.
And I realise I am being punished for my temerity, for today I have:
A tired track
Undulating but increasing temperature
And a faceless wind determined to steal mine.
Algebuckina, 16 km from Peake Creek is a vast body of sweet water. Just what I’d love to have in about five hours. Or had 16 km earlier. The old Ghan Railway bridge still stands. It’s massive. Testament to the force water exerts here when it finally does come. At Peake Creek they had a 10 m high wall of it come down in 1989.
Instead I merely photo it and taste it before riding on.
Neither track nor winds are favourable today. ‘tis laborious going. Sandy, corrugated, gravely, often all together, sometimes spanning hundreds of meters across floodways. The consequences of the rains the region had but a couple of weeks ago. In places water still lies on the track and the deep furrows and grooves of 4WDs and trucks reveal the struggles they had to pass. I pick a path between the ruts.
Between the floodways the track is mostly gravel and stony.
It goes very, very slowly. I plod, much like the 1st when I left Marree. 11 kph is not fast. My overall average is 7.6 kph. 77 kilometres suddenly goes from an ‘easy day’ to a ten hour slog. P-a-a-a-inful!
And the terrain is mostly up, coming out of the Eyre Basin. It is my day of reckoning.
The track and the terrain conspire to rob me of any consistent cycling tempo, no way to keep a steady pace. Plod, then plod again.
And it’s hot. Way above 40, maxing out at 46 C. That’s ‘in the sun’ temperature. The water bag temperature would be high 30’s possibly 40. Regardless, I am being fried.
I have plenty of water. I planned ten litres per day but yesterday only consumed like six.
My hydration strategy is very successful. Until recently I tended to resist my thirst to drink deeply about every hour. Consequently my mouth becomes a warm orifice of gooey tactile chewing gum, the outer part of my lips where they become the skin of my face dry and crack, whilst the softer inner lips adhere together and threaten to peel skin if I open my mouth as my tongue swells and desperately seeks moisture from anywhere inside my mouth. Only there is none. It is a challenge to not drink deeply to mitigate this.
Thus I modified my strategy. Every 15 minutes on the dot whether thirsty or (rarely) not I drink a couple of mouthfuls. Today, with the temperature a good five degrees warmer I increase the frequency to every ten minutes. I doubt I drink more this way but the frequency really helps downplay the desire to drink to quench my thirst.
I don’t pee. All day I don’t pee. I know I’m rehydrating when I start to pee again. I wonder what evil this is doing to my poor kidneys and liver. The symptoms of heat exhaustion include all manner of brain things … blurred vision, hallucinations, parched mouth (hmmm …), profuse sweating then no sweating any more, white salt build up, hairs standing on end, and stuff like that. But that’s all ‘outside’ stuff. On the inside all my organs need a certain amount of clean water to simply function. Lack of pee means there is not enough water flowing through the system to collect all the malevolent by-products of metabolism and wash it out
Death by massive organ failure due to water deprivation is one way to die in a desert.
Perhaps I should increase the volume I drink along with the frequency. Mind you I’ve not experienced that light-headed flush I get when I am seriously dehydrated. So far, so I believe, my hydration strategy seems to be working.
Above 35 C my technology begins to fail and my equipment takes on strange qualities. The Garmin Edge 520 cycle computer no longer charges, the Cat-Eye stops recording kilometres, anything plastic feels as if I’ve microwaved them for five minutes. My lip balm melts. The Factor 30 UVA/UVB broad-spectrum sun-block I use pours out like milk instead of a thick viscous paste.
Above 45 C and the shoe on the exposed side, mostly my left, heats up sufficiently to start cooking my little toe! A painful experience I haven’t yet worked out how to address.
I am so, so glad I did 130 km yesterday. If I had to do a full 100 km it would have been very, very hard. I’d have done it coz, frankly, the alternative, that of camping perhaps 30 km from Oodnadatta, is even harder. Get it over and done with. And so I did.
The Pink Roadhouse is Pink. Owned by Neville who took over two years ago. Great guy. Looks like the archetypical Australian with Akubra hat, handlebar moustache and long blond mullet.
Today, the 5th, is brain-fryingly hot. 57 C in the sun. Ten degrees more than it was yesterday. For 70$ a night I’ve an airconditioned room. Neville, upon request, put a fridge on the veranda so I can enjoy a supply of cold beer, homemade ice-coffees and chilled food, mostly fruit. The caravan park is no place for a tent. Hard stony ground with no shade. I’ll be here three nights since tomorrow is predicted to be even hotter than today, nearing 48C, so I’m told. Perhaps 60 C in the sun. Monday it ‘cools’ to 38 C and I’ll be back on the track.
In the Pink Roadhouse I buy two litres of OJ, two of milk, a six pack of beer, watermelon, nectarines, and stick ‘em in the fridge. In the Roadhouse I drink 600 ml of Gatorade, 600 ml of Iced Coffee and eat a juicy fat Magnum Espresso icecream all in a row. Rehydration. I am overjoyed when I finally pee and it looks ‘normal’ not some freakish mustard yellow stream which tells me I need to drink more.
Today Neville and I sit on the veranda outside my room and chat. He’s an original Australian with central European origins. Loves Germany. Not sure he loves Australia. Currently taking the Australian government to court coz he wants to install sufficient solar panels to wean his business off the 90 000$ per year addiction to fossil fuels in Australia’s “Hottest Driest Town”. Charming guy. One of many dinky-die Aussies who don’t understand a Federal Government punishing renewables, and who thinks the Australian immigration policy not just an embarrassment but also akin to keeping innocents in concentration camps. Foreigners could be given a two year stint to see what they could make of making declining country town vibrant again, thinks Neville. Otherwise the towns will die.
I truly hope he succeeds.
Now I’m going to continue my rehydration strategy, post this blog, try to Skype with My Love Ramona, catch up with Stuart who’s going to be somewhere in the neighbourhood within a week and otherwise psyche myself up for The Next Bit … heading north to Finck and eventually Kulgera at which point I’ll claim I’ve ‘done’ the Oodnadatta Track.
Oh … and a poem to my Kestrel Guardians …
my old friend
it’s just you and I again
I with my wheels
and you with your wings
both searching for something
I hope both we shall find
crossing a desolate harsh land.
I see I am your shadow
I know you’re crossing o’er my head and path
You are not there by accident
for in the distance you remain hidden
but as I ride
so I see you in the sky
in this desert outback land
of towering skies
red-burnt ancient sands
all bound by Dreamtime Songlines
But now it’s just you and I Kestrel
my old friend
I with my wheels
and you with your wings …
Oodnadatta, 5 Dec 2015