Shortly after I left Australia in 1989 I was offered a job as an exploration geologist in the Tanami Desert. At the time I thought to live and work in the Tanami would be the only reason to return to Australia, along with the Cape York Peninsula. Obviously. As it turned out I was already settled, sort of, in Singapore, living and working in South East Asia. I turned the job offer down and Warrick, a friend of mine, gets it and promptly discovers one of the mines that dot the Tanami Desert.
He got fat rich and retired after replicating the trick during a ten-year stint in Tanzania. He now makes knives (check out http://www.riflebirdknives.com/), writes the odd contract book, supports his partner Phillipa in her ventures and raises two sturdy sons.
I on the other hand continued my outward trajectory, ricocheted off work and living in twenty-five countries and travel in another two dozen and have remained relatively slim poor and a long way from retiring with any degree of financial security.
The Tanami and I go back a long way, is what I’m trying to say. It is the second piece of the entire Epic thing: Ride the Nullarbor and Do the Tanami. And now, finally, after months waiting for fairer weather, weeks for spare parts and days for a fucking cold to fuck-off I am now ready to Do the Tanami.
Frederika Ek, a Swedish cyclist who’s cycled from, well, Sweden has provided useful logistical information regarding water. The temperatures rarely above early twenties and cold at night. Erwin, a month ahead of me, tells me via sms:
“Have reached the Granites 500 km in. Awesome. The graders are done to the Granites. Then all hell turns loose. Enjoy your ride. Water is plentiful. Suggest 10 – 15 litres max”
Dreamer and Zi-Biddi, my brand spanking new trailer evolved from the trials and tribulations of Ziflex sent out for testing by Cyklorama, are loaded with fifteen litres of water (OK 16.25 to be exact) and food for fifteen days. Planned around 1050 km at 70 km per day. Time to go.
[Editors note: click on the picture montages to get the captions. Press esc to return to text]
08 July 2016
I say goodbye to everyone. I feel I belong or belonged, no social inadequacy. Will see who keeps in touch.
It’s 1039 when I finally head west along Parson Street before north into Todd Street, west onto Wills Terrace and finally north on the mighty Stuart Highway.
Twenty kilometres later I am still climbing. I’ve been climbing towards the Tanami Road turn-off since I started. It is all up hill. I don’t even make it to the ‘Highest Point Marker’ five kilometres ahead for the Tanami turn-off arrives first.
Then it’s fast and flat but with a slight head-cross-head wind.
Seventy five kilometres Day One. Now all I godda do is repeat the exercise day after day fifteen more times.
09 July 2016
I’m enjoying lunch at Charley Creek Roadside Stop, complete with water tank when several car loads of Aboriginals turn up. Jason wanders over and joins me, asking repeatedly if I need anything for if I do he can give it me. I’m but 24 hours out from Alice Springs. I have need of nothing. Still, I end up with a can of Spam and another of Red Bull. Really sweet of him, touching.
There’s a north-west wind blowing. It’s blowing in the heat from the north of Australia, and the flies. North west means a headwind. After month after month after month of beautiful strong south to south-easterly tailwinds I get a fucking headwind! I can’t believe my luck. Flat the road may be but headwinds are the new hills. It’s a grind and I grind my way along.
Australian drivers lack empathy. If they have nothing to fear they drive in the belief that the lesser entity: smaller car, motorbike, bike, pedestrian shall, if necessary, take evasive action.
The Tanami Road here is a single lane strip of asphalt just large enough for a single vehicle. Should a vehicle approach from either direction I move to the left and expect them with their four-wheeled independent and computer controlled suspension technology to deal with having two wheels on the asphalt and another two on the gravel shoulder. Some, small cars, do not get off the asphalt, racing by with unchecked haste less than a metre from me.
But one large four-wheeled drive with large ‘roo/bull-bar’ plays chicken with me, fully expecting me to get off what is my half of the asphalt so he does not have to put two of his four wheels onto the gravel. Exasperated I wave my arm to indicate please give me some room. They race by centimetres to spare pointing to the gravel on my side of the road and where they fully expect me to be. Small dicked men in a large car.
Come the end of the day I come across an oil/gas pipeline service road where a sign tells me
“Unauthorised traffic or activity on this pipeline easement is prohibited.
FINE UP TO 10 000$
JAIL UP TO 5 YEARS
Friendly. I camp anyway.
Here I bid farewell to my Halti shorts. Already on the way out and recently patched the tear across my buttocks is beyond repair. I burn them.
Headwinds all day and getting stronger. I am tired. End Of Day I rapidly make camp cook something anything and hit the sack. I want, need, a long sleep before an early start tomorrow.
10 July 2016
Eighty kilometres today. Headwinds too after 1000, getting stronger as the day progressed. Eighty kilometres by 1500. The last twenty were tough. That headwind. And it’s warm, over 30, courtesy of the north-westerly. Third day of headwinds. My legs are tired.
Main issues so far:
- lingering cough
- getting back into it: tired legs, tired in general.
For the rest it’s all OK.
Glad I camped rather than continue for another hour and do 90. Better to rest and recovery.
Tomorrow I’ve about sixty kilometres to Yuendumu, an Aboriginal Community and the Gateway to the Dirt.
Water does not seem to be a problem with easy distances between supplies.
No idea what birds but I have three around my camp each producing a different chirp or tweet with infallible timing and tone, producing a very enjoyable rhythm. One holds the rhythm, another adds a touch of bass whilst the third comes in with a dose of tenor. Amazing.
Day 3 has been the hardest. All my residual energy and strength has been slowly bled out, the muscles not yet used to the unrelenting nature of the work required of them, all day. Every day. My body, particularly the muscles which must actually do the work have woken up to the uncomfortable truth that this really is the new reality.
11 July 2016
It is cold and overcast. I’ve a tailwind. I am flying.
Nineteen kilometres from Yuendumu asphalt turns to gravel. I take a break, eat something and lower my tire pressure to a little above 2.5 bar.
Yuendumu lies three kilometres from the Tanami Road. It has a shop, three actually. And an art centre. At the Alice Springs YHA I met Fiona who works at the art centre and told me to drop by. So I do.
Fiona is charming and very helpful but also helpless in front of stifling bureaucracy. I need a shower, a washing machine and a place to stay. It did not occur to me that Yuendumu would not have a campsite. Now what? Fiona would really like to offer me a bed, somewhere, even space to put my tent but her boss, her boss …
I am granted use of the shower and the washing machine, begrudgingly if I understand correctly. But not a bed. As is often the case with recalcitrant bosses, the workers tend to have a network-thing going on to get around the irrational irritations of such bosses.
I end up at Jeremy’s house. I’ve never met Jeremy, yet here I am temporary possessor of a large double bed, unremitted enjoyer of a hot shower, my washing drying on the veranda, and fed a delightful pasta. Jeremy’s a music producer and well fond of working on Aboriginal Communities recording music both traditional and contemporary and everything in between, contributing to music shows, radio and more.
However, he’s keen on Berlin. We talk a lot about Berlin, about breaking the Ties That Bind and pursuing Dreams. As a Pro-Dream Chaser I hope I’ve inspired him and given him the confidence that Berlin will be a winner for him, for that is his Dream. All he needs to do is chase it …
I truly enjoy my evening with Jeremy and hope to hear from him when he’s ensconced in Berlin. It would be nice to see him again and perhaps introduce him to The North, Scandinavian style.
I’m losing strength in my right hand. Not sure why. Happened too in Indonesia. Something about a nerve somewhere. The pressure of my weight bearing down on my wrist? My right hand endures more because of the gear shifter is on the right-hand side. Add vibration and … ? Perhaps. It is a worry.
Erwin asks me, via sms, how my Tanami ride was. I reply that I’ve just started and in Yuendumu and whether he has any last hints for a successful and enjoyable ride. I get the following:
“Here are your water points:
128 km Alice Spring to Charley Creek rest area
60 km Charley Creek to Tilmouth Well roadhouse
102 km Tilmouth Well roadhouse to Yuendumu
161 km Yuendume to Renehans Bore tank
101 km Renehans Bore tank to The Granites
99 km The Granites to Lajamanu Road tank
238 km Lajamanu Road tank to Billiluna
25 km Billiluna to Water Bore (left, blue drum at road)
145 km Bore to Halls Creek”
I can not possibly imagine more useful information at a more handy time. It is exactly the information I need.
Running some calculations and modelling on five litres of water per day, which is at least 1 to 2 litres more than I’m currently consuming and 70 km per day riding, I end up with the following litres per section I need to carry:
128 km Alice Spring to Charley Creek rest area 1.8 days, 9 litres
60 km Charley Creek to Tilmouth Well roadhouse 1 day, 5 litres
102 km Tilmouth Well roadhouse to Yuendumu 1.5 days, 7.3 litres
161 km Yuendume to Renehans Bore tank 2.3 days, 11.5 litres
101 km Renehans Bore tank to The Granites 1.45 days, 7.2 litres
99 km The Granites to Lajamanu Road tank 1.4 days, 7.1 litres
238 km Lajamanu Road tank to Billiluna 3.4 days, 17 litres
25 km Billiluna to Water Bore (left, blue drum at road) .35 days, 2 litres
145 km Bore to Halls Creek 2.07 days, 10.3 litres.
Still, I am a contingency person. I plan for unforeseen eventualities. Perhaps a breakage. Perhaps a *unt of a day. Perhaps a Week Made In Hell. Perhaps a beautiful place where I want to spend a night or three. I am also really comfortable with the weight of fifteen litres. It doesn’t really slow me down that much more than if I should carry ten. So I start long sections with fifteen, and so it is when I leave Yuendumu just as dawn is breaking.
12 July 2016
Frequently people ask if I ride during the night. I reply No, not unless I really have to. Particularly if the road I’m riding is gravel. There is not enough light for me to adequately see the track when the asphalt in Yuendumu returns to gravel, despite the SON eDelux headlamp and I hit a sandy patch and very nearly lose control.
Lunch stop 50 km along the track. Fifty kilometres in 3 hours and 20 minutes. Not bad for a morning session Day 1 on gravel. Corrugations, a fierce STRONG tailwind, the sky grizzly, ominous. I hope it don’t rain. Rain, gravel roads and bikes are a very, very sour mix.
One hundred kilometres after leaving Yuendumu I’m haplessly searching for a campsite. The Spinifex is tight together. There are no tracks leading off anywhere for me to get away from the Tanami Road. It will be a painful slog to drag Dreamer + Zi-Biddi through the soft sand/dust and spinifex in search of a space to camp.
One hundred and five kilometres after leaving Yuendumu I turn onto an ancient truck track heading due south, straight as an arrow. No real access from the Tanami Road, I had to hump Dreamer over the shoulder then drag it through some soft sand before I could ride along one of the wheel-tracks. Far too wide for a modern car, it’s either a truck track or even a wagon trail. No vehicle has been down here in ages, the tracks themselves now used by animals.
One thousand meters along the track I find some beautiful flat clear spots in and around some decent trees and bushes and camp.
One hundred and five kilometres. According to my water consumption model I should have consumed some five litres leaving two for my evening tomorrow morning. Instead I’ve used just over two. Thanks be to a strong tailwind and a temperature that did not exceed 23oC. I’ve plenty of water.
I cook Jason’s spam. It tastes excellent. I really needed it.
First full day on dirt. Not bad. Traffic light and well behaved, only trucks and 4WDs.
13 July 2016
Rain’s a-comin’, down to 11.1oC. Good to ride, warmed me up. Thankfully it’s a tailwind otherwise it’d be deplorable riding. Instead, raced along, never thirsty and barely a sweat.
Met Jeremy and Yuendumu crew returning from a brief visit to Lajamanu hundreds of kilometres to the north. Tales of LOTS of rain: “The wipers couldn’t keep up” remarked Jeremy. I thought, hoped they were taking the piss, this odd form of dialogue Australians call humour. To my horror I realise they are being dead serious.
During my daily routine of hunting for a campsite I got off Dreamer and checked out some places off the Tanami Road. The ground is soft and damp. Rain and recent rain indeed and it may yet return, the sky black and racing, pushed by that wind. Grey and overcast. I’ve not seen the sun for two days.
Traffic’s dropped off. Past the Aboriginal Communities there’s also a marked drop in garbage strewn along the road, the number of 2WD vehicles and wrecks.
Dust fairies come out with the wind. Half a metre tall, ephemeral and rapid their long tails sinuous across the road as they glide with the wind.
Camp tonight is a gravel pit at the beginning of a ten kilometre stretch of asphalt. The grey sky pressing down I hasten to choose a place to put my Soulo. Promising places look like they will be inundated with water should it rain.
Drops start and I start to run, spreading out my tarpaulin, dropping the Soulo onto it I quickly assemble the three tent poles get them into their holding points then peg out four of the guy-ropes to hold the tent in place in face of the fierce wind. The rain holds off but the sky is hardly encouraging.
Minutes later the tent is up and rain still but a threat.
Vestibule cooking. I’ve yet to assemble the Helinox ground chair. Too cold too windy.
It hasn’t rained by the time I hit the sack.
14 July 2016
The asphalt stretch races past in but a moment and I return to the gravel and them corrugations. The wind strong from behind, the sky a startling blue after days of grey. Rain? Rain! What’s that? Not a trace, the road firm, the sky clear, the sun bright. Perhaps it was all a dream.
A large 4WD pulls along side and we chat. “Do you need anything, water, anything?” the usual refrain. “No, thanks for asking. I’m fine, except perhaps an iced-coffee” I reply. “Sorry, can’t help there, but how about a hot one?”
Jeff and Linda pull over and make me a hot cup of coffee in the bright sunshine and brutal chilled wind. Farmers from Liverpool we have an interesting conversation on the increasingly divisive issue of resource development, land management and a government seemingly out of step with the people they are supposed to represent.
“If the Hunter Valley is a 20¢ piece, west of the Dividing Range is a dinner plate” as a way to explain the amount of coal in ground yet to be exploited, sent to India and/or China and returned as carbon dioxide, lowered groundwater levels, destroyed prime agricultural land and the emergence of short-term mono-industrial mining communities. Jeff paints a grim picture and cannot understand why the government seems obsessed with exploiting a resource who’s’ time has come and gone.
The temperature finally crawls above 23oC as the day progresses. Just. The wind still very cold.
Am over half way. Am not using much water at all. Made it to the Granites with seven litres left from the sixteen I left Yuendumu with on the 11th!
I didn’t bother to refill at Renehan’s Bore, merely filling my bike-bottle. I ate lunch at Renehan’s, wrapped up against the howling wind, trying to keep my food on the wrap before it got wrapped and safe and eaten.
The reception at the Granites appears abandoned. I knock on the door, try the handle, find it open and enter. A couple of guys look startled. I tell them I’m after water.
They come out and show me the taps. I’m starving too, and ask about food possibilities. None, officially.
The Dudes, all Aboriginal, ask if I want a pie! A pie!? Errr … I get two, heated in the microwave. Salads appear, half a loaf of bread, a bottle of coke which disappears pretty darned fast. They are rotating out tomorrow and figure I have more need of their generous food allowances than they. I’m pretty full by the time I leave, loaded up with extra water from the potable-water available at the Granites gate. I aim to wash, to cleanse myself as best I can from the dust, dirt and sweat of the Tanami.
But two kilometres from the Granites Mine gates I camp. 77 km done. 567 km since Alice Springs. Over halfway.
I wash among the spinifex bushes and dry fast in the dying sun and stiff breeze. Telstra may struggle to connect the Outback to the rest of the world but somehow Newmont can. I talk with Ram and record a short video in honour of Hans’ 50 birthday, which seems a bit surreal out in the middle of a desert. It’s hard to imagine two more different worlds: the intense urban Amsterdam vs the timeless Dreamtime world of the Tanami Desert, connected by a mobile connection.
15 July 2016
Pulling out onto the road I notice headlights back at the Granites’ gate. A truck. It’ll catch me soon enough.
Looong sections of shoulder to shoulder corrugations. Very sandy in places too, the worst combination made even more challenging by recent rains softening it all.
One section is so bad it’s worth a photo. Stopping I notice a cylindrical green object about thirty metres behind me on the road. One of my sleeping bags! Vibrated loose.
If I had not ‘randomly’ stopped at this particular point in time and space I’d have lost a sleeping bag and thus my comfortable nights. I look to the sky to see if I can make out the Hand of God but instead get a quick glint of the sun reflecting off the eyes of my Earth Mother Queen. I’m not a believer in coincidences.
I notice them headlights, still a good distance behind me, tailing me nevertheless. Shades of Wolf Creek (the movie)? Should I worry? I figure it has to be some mine-geology-road-telecommunications-company thing.
Thirty-five kilometres north-west of the Granites. A break. Banana and cocoa beans. Very tasty.
A God-Almighty noise gets increasingly louder. Emerging from the shade I see The Headlights painfully and painfully slowly rumble along towards me. A three-trailered Mack truck road-train. Fully-loaded with a bad road he is slower than I! Only difference is that a Mack truck road-train doesn’t need to stop everynowandthen to give its legs a break and eat something.
We have a chat and realising I’ll be chasing and chased by this monster for the rest of the day I ask “What chance of a lift to Lajamanu turn-off?” and receive a “Yes, no problem.”
Not only do I get a lift, Rob, the driver, plies me with coffee, salad, muesli bars and so on. We trundle along swapping stories and having a great time. OutBack Truckers In Action, no less.
Rob drops me off at the Lajamanu Tank and continues to rumble on for a few more hours.
I start fishing around for a space to put Soulo. Not an easy task given the tight bush and spinifex. Eventually I find some open ground among some small trees and set up.
Lajamanu junction camp where I stayed for two nights meaning I actually had a day off from riding
I managed to break the bike-stand when manoeuvring Dreamer to get it on Rob’s truck. Zi-Biddi jack-knifed on me, as it does every now and then and after a year or so of such weight bearing down hard upon the poor stand it simply snapped off where the housing is bolted to the bike’s frame. And let me tell you, a bike towing a trailer without a stand is a major and serious pain every single time I wanna get off the bike. I have to come up with a solution.
As we were lifting Dreamer onto the trailer there was an alarming clunk of metal. Rob had hold of the rear of the Brooks saddle and it has fallen apart. A Brooks saddle has this funny bolt-nut design thing which can be tightened to keep the leather of the saddle taunt. It is this which has fallen apart. Currently held together by cable-ties, I need a solution to this too.
My campsite overlooks the quite impressive rehabilitation efforts of the Tanam Mine. Tomorrow I shall visit the mine and see if they can lend a hand and more importantly their TIGG welder. And perhaps a bolt.
Tomorrow is thus an official ‘rest day’. Not quite sure about the ‘rest’ bit for tomorrow I shall:
- restock my water supplies from the Lajamanu Tank
- wash my shorts and t-shirt
- source a nut for my Brooks Saddle
- weld up the stand or fabricate a new one
- email Santos to get a spare sent to Halls Creek
- find some <1mm wide wire to use as a jet cleaner on my Optimus Multi-Fuel stove, and
- wash myself.
16 July 2016
ONE YEAR TO THE DAY THAT I STARTED MY EPIC …
And here I am at the Lajamanu turn-off, not quite sure whether to feel a bit sorry for myself and a bit apprehensive, or elated.
I have to approach the mining guys down the road whether they can or more importantly will help me. What if they don’t?
It’s not a show stopper. Already I’ve devised a temporary stand which works. ‘K, it’s just a stick jammed against the frame.
The main issue is the saddle. No saddle no ride. I godda repair the saddle. All it needs is a nut. Surely no one can begrudge a person a nut. Surely.
The only way to ease my pain is to ride the bike to the mine and take it on.
First, finish my coffee.
It’s a tad worrying that the roof is off the Lajamanu Tank. No roof means things can fly and die in the water rendering it beyond drinkable. It’s full, the water level maintained by an automatic valve. The water’s clear though a green film coats the bottom. I drank some last night. The usual bore-water mineral taste but otherwise OK. I use my Platypus filtration system though, just in case, and painstakingly filter five litres of water. Glad I did as some of that green slime made its way into the dirty-water reservoir.
The gate to the mine is closed and locked. It is obvious they neither want nor expect visitors. Rob told me how to get to the admin office. I and Dreamer duck under the gate and follow the road around to the admin office. I pass various mining infrastructure and it’s pretty obvious that the place is closed and mouthballed. I begin to wonder if anyone will be here at all. Skip the welding but a bolt I should at least find.
There are new-ish vehicles parked outside the admin office. A good sign. I enter and find a couple of dudes. One, the manager if I understand correctly, is quite shocked to see me “Isn’t the gate locked?” he asks no-one-every-one. “Yes” I reply “but I have a bike and simply ducked under the gate”. He looks perturbed that his sanctuary has so easily been breached.
I explain my case my needs. It’s too hard know how this is going to pan out with the banter between the various people. Suddenly the mood changes, lightens. I’m offered a pie, tea. Josh, a young geo with studs in his nose is assigned me.
The mine is indeed mouthballed. Northern Star, the new owners, are trying to prove up more resources. No chance of welding. The nut proves elusive to. It’s an M8 bolt but neither Imperial nor Metric M8 nuts fit. Josh and I are perplexed. The manager turns up, takes a look at the bolt and tells us it’s fucked, long has the thread been destroyed. Consequently we force a couple of M8 nuts onto it and it’s fixed.
Josh cuts some electrical wire off a reel and I have my Optimus jet cleaner.
I log into the mine’s internet on my phone and fire off an email to Santos for the new stand. It should be waiting me in Halls Creek by the time I get there in well over a week. I won’t get any reply from them so I’m hoping this works out well.
I’m asked about water and explain I’ve loaded up from the tank. Apparently it’s treated mine water, strong in salts. Josh rustles up a ten litre container and fills it from the potable water tap.
I’m released at the gate and head back to camp where I wash my clothes and myself. And sit and patiently make a bike stand from one of the eucalyptus trees that dot the area.
There’s a dingo sniffing around. I saw it eat the skin of my avocado I discarded. Whilst I was at the mine I put all my food bags and my garbage bag in a tree.
Protecting my food from a curious dingo. Only to find when I returned that the crows has swiped my garbage bag
Returning I have my food bags but there’s no sign of the garbage bag. Hunting around I find it a good distance from the tree, lots of spiky footprints around it. Crows had got to it.
17 July 2016
The squeak of my saddle has abated. You know, there’s a really good chance that I did not lose the bolt whilst riding the Tanami, for I have had that squeak since Western Australia. I remember mentioning it to other Brooks saddle owners whose saddles did not squeak. The bolt may well have fallen off on the Munda Biddi and I simply didn’t notice. In picking Dreamer up by the saddle Rob finally allowed the seat to fall apart and the new nuts have restored it to a non-squeak state.
The Tanami now heads due west towards the Northern Territory-Western Australian border some 75 km away. It’s in pretty good nick. Makes me wonder whether it’s lesser travelled but this can’t be the case. There are no other roads to bleed off traffic. All who were driving north towards the Lajamanu turn-off continue west towards the border. Those who head towards Lajamanu come from both directions and there’s scant of them anyway. Guess the road condition is simply better for unfathomable reason.
Traffic is friendly, many cars slowing/stopping asking if I’m OK and want for anything: “You right for water?” the most popular question. Mostly I reply “Anything fresh would be good, and an iced-coffee”. I never get the iced coffee but I am given bananas, apples, oranges by various travellers. They are quite excited and bemused to find a cyclist on the Tanami. Many take pictures. It’s really nice.
Most traffic, most, also slow right down as they approach and pass me from both directions reducing dust and stone-throw. Very nice of them. There is always a twat who barrels past as if I’m simply not there. Alarming, stones zinging past, clouds of dust rising. Not sure why they do it.
Finally there are a couple of MC riders. Jill and Mike on Suzukis. Done tens of thousands of kilometres in like three months of travelling. Nice to chat and swap stories with the odd 4WD joining in. It must have been quite a site: two motor-bikes and cyclists haphazardly parking in the middle of the road.
Signs tell me I must be approaching the border. That and the vehicles parked in a clearing at the top of a rise.
There’s quite a crowd at the border parking area and I field a lot of questions and curiosity. I even get a beer. My first since Alice Springs a full ten days previously. I sit on an old tire on my own in the parking area enjoying the view and the beer. Brilliant.
Camped now in a clearing a few hundred meters from the border along a small track I thought I’d have company. Apparently not.
The Sea to Summit bladder leaked. Again. Infuriating! This time along the bladder’s seam. Tiny holes. Not lost much water and my stuff in Zi-Biddi’s are not too damp. But it is really annoying. I cannot recommend Sea to Summit bladders. Fortunately I have a spare bladder and swap them, transferring the water (obviously) and disposing of the faulty bladder.
The country is stunning, a visual spectacle. ‘tis truly the best way to see country, by bike. Long and slow and time consuming I can indulge my senses and simply enjoy. Poor car drivers racing past focussing on the road unable to look left or right for more than but a second or so.
I didn’t really eat a decent lunch during the day, just fruit, dried fruit and nuts and cocoa beans. My head was kinda light when I finally stopped. I enjoy a large meal to put some energy back in.
A noise awakes me late at night. I listen for it again. My food bags are just outside the tent chilling in the evening air. They are open. I fear a dingo or something has designs on my food. There … the noise again. Soft, not what I’d expect from a sizeable dog. It is persistent.
I cautiously unzip the tent until I get my head out and hit the Led Lenser headlamp instantly illuminated my camp in brilliant white light.
No dingo. But well a marsupial hopping mouse! Kool as. Always wanted to see one and now I have one but half a metre right in front of me checking out my camp.
18 July 2016
Erwin had this to say about the stretch west from the border “There is a stretch that is about 50 km that is plain shocking”. Perhaps my fortune has changed since I’m racing along, flying, pushed by a strong easterly along a good quality and dead straight stretch of road for twenty kilometres. Perhaps, perhaps the graders and road-crew have come and gone in the time between Erwin’s misfortune and my good-fortune. Perhaps.
Alas it is not to be. The road is diabolical. Sixty kilometres of gut-wrenching belly-wobbling teeth-chattering hand-fatiguing stony-sandy-corrugations. Great.
I can’t help it. The words come to mind. I play with them as I jar along, driven by the relentless assault of corrugations …
It’s hot too, or getting hot, early 30s. Welcome back to The North. Must be a good 700 km due north of Alice Springs by now.
I turn down Balgo Road heading towards Balgo, an Aboriginal Community 33 km south of the Tanami Road. I’m looking for a campsite among open plains, few trees and even less open ground.
I plod along and nearly miss a small track heading off the Balgo Road to the east. I follow it, curve around what looks to be a quarry or very small mine and find a great campsite.
Exhausted after the ride and starving – 3800 calories burnt today. Chilling a bit in the shade on my Helinox groundchair enjoying a snack-attack before taking on setting up camp. It’s a hard dilemma: ensure shelter is secure vs deal with the hunger. Day’s running out …
Shelter first. It is THE most important thing.
So I snack instead, then set up the tent.
E V E R Y T H I N G is covered in dust. I truly hope tomorrow in Balgo I can do some washing. And enjoy my first shower in seven days.
I cursed a few drivers today: to fast too close. No empathy. But only a few. The majority are juuust fine.
19 July 2016
“Can’t you leave any part of the road alone?” I complain plaintively to road-users past as I thud my way across shoulder to shoulder soft deep corrugated dusty road designed in Cycling Hell and made in Western Australia. “No, for you are an unempathetic steal-encased 4-wheel computer-controlled independent suspension atop 17” low pressure tires. You don’t feel a thing” thump thud thump thud …
Add the usual ignorant drivers racing past sending stones flying and dust-a-rising, I’m truly enjoying this (NOT!).
Thirty-five kilometres later I’m in Balgo.
Six hours later …
I had three simple objectives for Balgo:
2 wash clothes
How hard can it be? How hard indeed.
I managed it. The last costing a cool 150$, down from the 200$ quoted initially, in the Catholic Parish.
Not sure what it is or was for no matter how friendly and curious about my travels are Ray and Pete and his partner in the store, all they can do is direct me to Robyn at the HACC (health aged community care). Themselves they can not (will not) offer a shower nor a washing machine.
Robyn is not at the HACC when I get there. I find the shower. Open and inviting if a little scungy. A load of clothes is going around in the washing machine. There’s grass and land within a fenced compound suitable for a tent … I wonder …
I cross the Community office a couple of hundred meters away where I meet Ms Grumpy and Unhelpful whose best advice is to “see the police”. No, she does not know where I can take a shower or wash clothes and clearly wants me to politely disappear. And the community accommodation block, affectionately known as the Balgo Hilton is “booked out”. Truly unhelpful woman.
The police are at lunch. “Come back in an hour” suggests the young rookie replacement manning the station who’s been in town two days.
For a tiny close knit community it is staggering how little anyone knows about its services.
Back to the HACC and the illustrious Robyn who is still not around.
I decide to risk her ire by taking a shower anyway, ignoring the “The toilet is for the use of HACC clients ONLY” sign.
Only there’s a large Troopy parked outside. I ask them. They too know nothing and wash their hands from suggesting it may be OK to take a shower. “Wait for Robyn” I am told. “It is but a shower” I point out to deaf ears. Right then Robyn actually calls this person, who needs to go to the airport. This person talks to Robyn right in front of me. And says nothing, does not hand me the phone. What a fucking place. What a fucking people.
“I’ll tell Robyn about you” is the best I get out of her before she leaves to the airport – with Robyn.
Mike and Nathen turn up. From Melbourne in town on some sort of visit the Catholic School trip. I’d met them two days earlier at the border. They are well impressed by my trip.
They’ll have a chat with the school principal for there is place around where they stay, which also has a shower and a washing machine. Perhaps I’d like to come to the school and give a bit of talk about my trip. They are sure the kids would get something out of it. Sounds good, promising.
A large Troopy turns up and parks just outside the fence of the HACC. The passenger window ominously winds down and I can barely make out a pale face topped with long blond hair. Robyn. Here is my moment of truth. I approach the window as a supplicant approaches an alter and prostrate myself before the Mistress of the Alter and as meekly and as politely and as inoffensively as I can I introduce myself and my needs.
And Robyn helps me. I get my shower, my clothes washed. Accommodation’s a bit tricky. Despite there being plenty of space in and around the HACC building she’s not sure, y’know, it’s a government building, not sure what the locals (Aborigines) can or will make of it, y’know we’ve told them that no-one can stay here and y’know if you stay here, even in your tent, y’know …
Yes, I get the picture. “Any idea where I could stay?”. “The Balgo Hilton?” “Booked out”. Robyn makes a disparaging comment about Ms Grumpy and Unhelpful whose demeanour is apparently (in)famous.
Robyn drives me around town looking for a place to accommodate me. By which I mean to place my tent somewhere. We try the compound. There are accommodation blocks, dongers, single-person rooms. All empty. All unavailable. Instead we look at the verandas and yards around such accommodation blocks.
Until finally Robyn drops The Bomb … “Have you tried the Catholic Parish?” she asks pointing to a sturdy building 100 m from the HACC. Why would I try the Catholic Parish I think to myself. “No”, I answer. “They have rooms” Robyn tells me. Fuck me, it’s taken over four hours for someone to tell me there are rooms available in the Catholic Parish.
I wander over. It’s a fortress. Thick stone walls, strong mesh covered bars lining the veranda. No one responds to the bell. I hear a vacuum cleaner in one of the rooms I can make out through the mesh and finally a woman responds.
“I’m told you have rooms, accommodation” I say to her through the mesh.
“You’re joking aren’t you” is the unexpected reply.
“Ahhh … no, no joke” wondering what’s going on.
“Hmmm, you’d better come in” as she unlocks the gate.
They do indeed have accommodation. They are cleaning up after the anti-termite brigade which has just swept through the rooms, hence her comment. There isn’t actually a room available, but they are cleaning one up and it’ll be available in an hour or so. Phew! is all I can think. For 150$ a night.
Thanks, thanks to Robyn it turned out OK for me. No institutional or systemic organisational support. A person. The generosity and helpfulness of a single person. Thank you Robyn.
And Mike and Nathen? Well before Robyn tells me of the Catholic Parish, I make my way to the school. It’s also a fortress with no obvious way in, like to a reception. I can see Mike and Nathen playing with kids through the fence. Mike makes his way over. Something about how he makes his way over tells me everything I need to know. Any possibilities are dead and buried in the mysterious world of organisational politics: something about security clearance, child safety, I don’t know what.
Catholic and Christian Charity? Not here, not now.
Thanks be to Robyn.
Balgo is by far the strangest place I’ve yet been in Australia. It’s a stronghold of WA government policy regarding remote Aboriginal Communities. ‘Corporations’ dominate. Governmental Organisations. This is not a town of people. This is a playground of Corporations, each trying to deal with Balgo’s Aboriginal population. There have been riots. The potential for violence bubbles just beneath the surface.
If you are not with a ‘Corporation’, the town doesn’t know what to do with you. Except provide you a shop for food and drink, a bowser for fuel and a road out of town. Stay in Balgo? Unheard of. Why would the random tourist want to stay in Balgo.
Not sure why there’s marketing and promotion of Balgo as a place to visit, sucking tourists off the Tanami Road 33 km to the north if there are no basic services to offer anyone.
I can’t recommend Balgo. I find/found it a strange experience.
Whilst Ray and Pete are engrossed in Dreamer, Zi-Biddi and my Epic it is an Aboriginal dude who hands me a chilled 1.5 litre bottle of water, figuring it may be something a dehydrated cyclist could benefit from.
Balgo has a siege mentality about it. E V E R Y T H I N G is behind stout doors, stouter barbed wire topped fences, padlocks and security screens. Kids and dogs roam in packs playing havoc with whatever they come across.
A threat of violence hangs over the town, so say the white folk. Not the experience I expected. Aboriginal and remote communities elsewhere seem much less systemic and much more accommodating, like Yuendumu but a (looong) week previously.
20 July 2016
Needless to say I’m quite happy to leave Balgo and head towards the remote Aboriginal Community of Mulan on the eastern edge of Lake Gregory. The Plan is to camp at the Handover campsite on the eastern edge of Lake Gregory for a couple of days before making my way up The Back Road to Billiluna and the Tanami Road.
The road is good and I’m making swift time when I hear an all too familiar noise. The Curse of Ziflex: the mudguard has self-destructed and it making a hell of a noise. Adroit use of cable-tie and I continue. Every ten or so kilometres I need to re-insert the damaged mudguard into the cable-tie.
A non-existant gate tells me I’ve arrived in Paruku and I’ll need a permit.
A short time later I’m in Mulan where a second-hand clothes market is being set up.
Within half an hour I’ve Peter Lockyer working on Zi-Biddi’s mudguard and Marc a part-Aboriginal bear of a man with bare-feet which would do a buffalo honour, offers me a shower in his house and an iced coffee. He also tells me I’m exempt from needing a permit, seeing as I’m on a bicycle-n-all. Truly a friendly welcome.
Definitely not a siege mentality evident here. The friendliness of everyone white and Aboriginal is in stark contrast to Balgo. No one in Mulan seems to like Balgo.
Everyone seems to know everyone. A veritable network of present dayers and past residents all somehow captivated by Mulan, its people and its amazing landscape.
I press them for information regarding The Back Route. I’ve decided to skip the Handover campsite idea – “The water’s a fair way from the campsite” I’m warned.
Marc, Brian (Marc’s son-in-law) and Peter are of the opinion that there will be tough sections but otherwise, once past The Two Sand Dunes I should be OK. Only the Ranger seems dubious claiming “It’s pretty sandy” but he doesn’t press his point.
Loaded with water and food I plan to camp about 14 km up the track where the Sturt Creek crosses the road, near the abandoned settlement of Gilungarra. There’s two hours till sunset and it’s still in the early 30s. Should be doable.
The Back Road is a 75 km ‘short-cut’ joining Mulan with Billiluna and the Tanami Road north towards Halls Creek. Various car drivers along the Tanami have reassured me that yes it’s sandy but hard, that I’d have “no problems”. Even the Mulan locals, Mark, Peter and Brian were sure I’d have “no major problem”. The odd quiet dissenting voices, like the IPA Ranger were lost under the enthusiasm for the ride, the shear adventure of it all.
And for a while, a short, short while I thought it would all work out. Being an optimist I am sure the track will become rideable in just a few short tens of metres, which despairingly stretch into hundreds of meters as the relentless thick soft sand continued to be just that … relentless. I am dragging Dreamer and Zi-Biddi far more than I am riding them. Each step sand pours into my shoes as I struggle to keep my rig upright in the ruts between walls of sand. Sweat pours off me running down my forehead into my eyes, dripping off my nose, my Icebreaker soaked.
The hardpan the 4WDs alluded to is overlain by a thick layer of very soft sand. It is possible to ride but the rideable ‘path’ is perhaps ten centimetres wide, perhaps more, corrugated and hemmed in by walls of soft unconsolidated sand up to half a metre high. I simply can’t control Dreamer and I slide into one of the walls and come shuddering to gruesome inelegant halt desperately trying to get a foot down to prevent Dreamer from tipping over. Not always successfully and I am tossed hapless into the sand and dust, Dreamer and Zi-Biddi forlorn on their side.
The shoulders are hard. I can ride them. Only, there are bushes, spinifex and the odd small tree growing along them. I can’t ride for long before being forced back on the sand and stuck. Again.
Overcompensating one time for sliding down off the shoulder and into the sand, Dreamer races up the shoulder and ploughs into a small termite mound.
I am catapulted off Dreamer and do my usual ‘crash-off-bike-roll’ through silicon-tipped spinifex needles.
Dreamer is languishing atop the broken termite mound. Nothing is broken, though one pannier is free of its lower mooring. The termite mound managed to miss all vulnerable parts like brake calipers, cables and hoses, the Gates Carbon Fibre belt, the belt’s chainwheel, spokes and so on. Dreamer is nestled snuggly and firmly on the hard robust steel where the top tube, down tube and headstem join.
EMQ keeping an eye on me, I guess. I don’t go in for simple ‘luck’ anymore. But there is a lesson here. Decide whether the risk of damage is worth continuing, for I doubt next time will be quite so forgiving.
As I pull spinifex needles out of my Icebreaker and my skin I consider that The Back Road could cost me more than I’m prepared to pay.
The ground alongside the track is relatively open. Small spinifex clumps, the odd small termite mound, flat surface not too soft. I decide to give it a go, haul Dreamer and Zi-Biddi up over the shoulder and start to ride. I am conscious that I need to keep an eye on the track otherwise I may drift too far away and get lost. Another dumb tourist statistic, lost in Australia’s vast Outback. Even though I’ve not only a good GPS, compass and a PLB (Personal Locator Beacon) it’s still a worry.
It’s also a hard slog, impossible to avoid all the spinifex clumps and I ride right over them wondering just how impregnable are the Mighty Mondial Marathons vs the spinifex’s needles.
Out of nowhere another termite mound sneaks up on me, forcing me to yet another shuddering halt. Cursing, I disentangle myself only to find Dreamer does not want to roll, or cannot. The force of the collision has forced one of Zi-Biddi’s coupling arms off Dreamer’s rear axle.
Alarmed I strip off panniers to see how bad the damage is. The locking mechanism and quick-release of the coupling arm has been forced back. It takes quite a bit of gentle persuasion to loosen it. There is a significant amount of play. Seems I have damaged or distorted the quick-release housing. Although it still works, I figure I’m likely to suffer a similar fate in the future.
This time I decide to heed EMQ’s warning and give up. I will not ride The Back Road to Billiluna.
My intended campsite lies still four kilometres hence. I’ve done barely nine in near two hours. Dark is coming and here it comes damned fast. Already the temperature’s dropping fast.
I set up my Helinox ground-stool, collect myself for a moment before digging around to get out my Soulo and set up camp when I hear a noise. An engine noise. A car engine noise. Sure enough I can see a cloud of dust. A vehicle is coming from the north.
My plan was to spend the night here, leave the bulk of my stuff, ride back into town on the morrow and arrange someone to return with me, pick up my gear and continue to Billiluna. Seems EMQ may have different plans.
Wade and Gillian + their four-year old in a Landrover Defender pulling a custom-built retro-styled van come to a halt, since I’m standing smack in the middle of the track.
A bit of oohing and aahing later Dreamer sits astride the trailer’s A-frame, Zi-Biddi is on the roof rack, the panniers in the rear of the Defender and me in the front seat.
Coincidence is really getting a good stretching here … Wade is an ex-local and knows everyone in town including Peter who repaired Zi-Biddi. We make Mulan, drive around various houses saying hi to various people without getting out of the Defender. People are surprised to see me. We continue through Mulan, Wade commenting that “It seems you are stuck with me” and head out to Two Hills ten kilometres from town followed by a small flotilla of vehicles.
At two hills we watch the sun set, the full moon rise, enjoy a gin and tonic and some cheese and biscuit snacks. I am included and welcomed in the occasion.
A bit of networking later I’ve a range of accommodation options and end up putting Soulo on the spacious veranda of the donga where Peter and Sandra + Phil and Kate are staying. They invite to share their fire, offer me food and make me feel welcome.
I have landed well. Coincidence? Luck?
21 July 2016
It took about half an hour to arrange a ride. Brian, son-in-law of Marc who is a sort of Apex Male in the Community, will take me tomorrow afternoon after work.
A large contingent is heading to Lake Gregory for the night. I am invited to join but figure I’ve simply got too much to do and so decline. I need a bit of head-space ahead of my departure tomorrow. I spend the night along, planning, organising, feeding, reading, relaxing. I’d love to see Lake Gregory but it will not be this time.
Down at the store, the only place in town where it’s possible to connect to Telstra, I write to Ram and find out that my spare part, which I thought I’d ordered days ago at Tanam Mine won’t be in Halls Creek when I expect to get there in a couple of days. So I arrange that too.
22 July 2016
I wake really early for no particular reason and watch the sunrise. I wash my bedding and clothes, wash too my Shimano cycling shoes, wash my Soulo tent. Cleansed I repack, organise food and water supplies for perhaps five days camping at Nyarna a lake 15 km from Billiluna. I may as well wait there rather than in Halls Creek itself as I await a new stand to make its way from the Netherlands to Halls Creek.
Everyone returns from Lake Gregory. We swap contacts. Perhaps someone will eventually end up in The North enabling to repay some of the wonderful hospitality I’ve been shown. Marc points out that I am benefitting from paying-forward previously and all I need to do is pay it forward when the moment arises.
Clean, packed and loaded I head back to the store to await Brian, and carefully and enjoyably navigate my way through the boundless curiosity of a dozen Aboriginal kids about Dreamer, Zi-Biddi and my trip.
Lots of photos later Brian knocks off work, we load everything into the back of his Troopy, fuel up and head off.
We barrel down The Back Road, Brian telling tales of how it is to drive in the wet, that the grader was last here two or is it four years previously, and various other Tales of the Outback.
The track’s condition throws even the Troopy around. It’s a doable track, for a cycle. But it’s a long hard slog. I am happy I called it quits. Even though the various 4WDs I asked didn’t quite paint an accurate picture, I’m kinda glad they didn’t as I would not otherwise have made my way through Balgo to Mulan and discovered an odd and delightful little village in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by magnificent country, populated by great people overwhelmingly hospitable to a cycling refugee, learned elements of Aboriginal culture from one who is proud of it (Marc) and finding out I’ve no need to race to Halls Creek and can instead chillout on the shores of Nyarna.
Coincidence? Luck? Thanks EMQ.
23 to 29 July 2016 – Nyarna
Mark and Julie left today (25th July), heading north with their luxurious Prado and nifty camper-trailer. They arrived the same day I did only in the day not at night which is when Brian drops me off and returns to Mulan. They were worried I’d been abandoned because I was a “naughty boy” as Julie put it the next day when we met.
Wonderful people, done well out of a lifetime of hard work building a plumbing business now run by the second generation. Generous as they are charming I enjoyed wonderful steak one night, lots of magnificent mushroom pasta the next. I am sure Julie made substantially more than she would normally for three. I asked whether I could buy a bottle of red wine off them. It went something like this:
“Would it be possible to buy a bottle of red wine off you?”
“Ah, no we don’t do that. It is not possible to buy a bottle of red wine. We’ve done quite well out of life and we worked hard for it, we’ve earned it. We’re happy to share our success.”
“Ah, I see”
“Yeah, you’re going to have to try again”
“Would it be possible to get a bottle of red wine off you?”
That kind of people.
They like a mix of adventure and luxury. I suggested the Hurtigruten from Bergen to Kirkenes. In winter, late January to mid-February. With the possibility of a stop over in Narvik and quick trip east to Kiruna where I and Ram live. You never know, they may just do it.
My forced, enforced stay here at Nyarna has been delightful, a tonic for the soul. Lots of time to … relax, with no social obligation, no pressing apprehension of am I imposing, how do I repay to people who are generously accommodating me. Nor do I need worry about financial cost, as it was in Alice Springs awaiting the elusive Mighty Magura brake caliper. The weather is benign, a touch on the hot side during the afternoon effortlessly offset by the chill of the lake and the plentiful shade available.
I sit in my tent in the early morning out of the wind enjoying coffee reading Michael Booth’s book on the vagaries of the Scandinavian and Nordic people fifty metres from the water inundated by the sounds of half a dozen different birds but in particular the outrageously raucous corellas listening to the fading engines of the latest one-nighters as they disappear towards Billiluna or start their Canning Stock Route odyssey in earnest and try to figure if I’m in a good place or not.
Such melancholy musings last about eight intellectual seconds. I am emphatically in a great place. For sure my purpose is to ride. But my purpose is not to ride robotically. I’ve an inalienably poor ability to chill and do nothing. Pierre Gallant on Gilli Meno succeeded quite well in suspending my compulsive need to Do Something. He used an effective combination of chilled beer inexhaustible supply of Malboros irresistible deck-chairs and good food on a tropical beach. Here I have finally succeeded. There is nothing to do except relax, read a book, update my blog, clean Dreamer in the lake, clean myself in the lake, tinker a bit with various adjustments, deal with the loose quick-release on the coupling arms, stare at the map of the Kimberlies, go for short walks and continue to relax. I can’t go shopping buy food buy and consume booze watch TV or movies or surf the internet or phone people or join people in the bar go to the cinema curse Australia’s recalcitrant inner-city driving habits and be inundated by the sheer weight of lots of people in a small area generally manifest as a brutalistic macabre visual and audio anthropogenic alternative to the lake lizards trees birds and bellowing cattle (who only come out at night) and which define where I am now.
I am in A Good Place.
I share my world with imposing Brolgas with their distinctive honking call, cagey shags and cormorants warily drying their wings on the lakes shore, elegant white egrets stalking patiently in the murky littoral zone, opportunistic crows with a variety of mysterious calls, a dozen haunting kites one species preferring thermal drift far higher than the other which prefers close quarter combat metres above the water whistling to each other as they criss-cross the area, budgerigars bursting from their nests in a flurry of wing and chirp, gangs of babblers invading one tree before taking on the next, and bright bee-eaters almost invisible until they burst forth to snare a hapless insect on the wing. It is not a boring place.
Definitely not a boring place. Tremendous hospitality by Mark and Julie. Julie’s of Italian descent which is quite possibly why I got invited to not one but two delightful meals. Mark is a charming man now very much enjoying the benefits of having worked hard all his life.
After being invited for steak (steak! I kid you not, steak!) Julie also mentions whether I’d like to watch a movie. They have an impressive collection courtesy of one of many sons. What about a bit of cinema on the foreshore on a 12V flatscreen? Zoundz like a great idea. In honour of the occasion we watch Wolfe Creek 2. Less horror more gory comedy with an indefatigable Mike Taylor doing all sorts of dastardly things to hapless tourists. Wolfe Creek is 80 km north of Nyarna.
Phil, a local dude, and his daughter Natalie join in.
Before the movie starts Phil scans the far side of the lake for the evil feral cat. Eyes sighted he breaks out a hunting rifle, lies prone on the ground the rifle supported by two small legs, Natalie does the honours with the powerful LED torch and Phil tries to dispatch one of Australia’s worst mistakes: The Cat, gone wild.
Unfortunately he misses. I’m not much for hunting but I have no issue with eradicating feral and destructive animals like The Feral Cat.
Nope, not boring.
A gang of CSR-ers top up my rapidly dwindling supply of a coffee.
Another couple who left today (27th) gave me three beers yesterday evening. Shear luxury.
Don and Sue, from Adelaide turn up with a humungous twin axle caravan. Invited inside I get a good idea why you’d want to travel this way. Sumptuous, spacious, fully equipped, toilet bathroom at one end, kitchen with huge fridge full sized cooker and microwave, dinning, lounge in the middle, large Queen-size at the other end. Airconditioned, TV and home entertainment system sat-linked. It is, putting it mildly bigger than some apartments I’ve been in in the Netherlands.
They too fed me: lamp chops and Chorizo, barbequed, potatoes, stir-fry veggies, a couple of beer, redwine and … port! Errr …
They travelled the Tanami first time in 1972. I was 10 years old and the Tanami but two-wheeled tracks. They’ve earned their touch of luxury.
Don’s the antithesis of me: lived his whole life in the same house, same job his whole career (running South Australia’s largest power plant), and same wife: Susan. Very nice people.
Now I must start to prepare to leave. Food levels declining rapidly. It’ll give you some idea of just how much food I did carry to enable me to stay a full week without recourse to resupply. But now there are distinct gaps in my baggage. Come Friday I’ll need to restock.
29 July 2016
I’ve got to do 80-odd kilometres today. Plus resupplying in Billiluna. Rumour has it the 23 km from the Tanami Road to Wolfe Creek Crater is savage. I’ve a sneaking suspicion the near 20 km from Nyarna to Billiluna could be equally as challenging as I shall ride the most northerly taste of the (in)famous Canning Stock Route. Sandy springs to mind. And corrugated. Oh, and dust too. Naturally.
I checked out the tracks out of Nyarna to the Canning Stock Route. Sandy. Corrugated. Dusty.
Only not too sandy, corrugated and dusty. That’s over perhaps three kilometres of track. No idea about the remaining seventeen kilometres. 4WD drivers, when asked, stare blankly at me simply not understanding the question “How is the condition of the track?” protected, as they are, by their Land Cruiser’s front “independent double wishbone with gas dampers, coil springs and hydro-mechanical semi-active anti-roll bar” and rear “Live axle, trailing arms, coil springs, panhard rod, gas dampers and hydro mechanical semi-active anti-roll bar” suspension (courtesy of http://www3.toyota.com.au/landcruiser-200/specifications/sahara-turbo-diesel). Further removing them from, let’s say experiencing the track are their adjustable slide, recline, cushion, height, lumber settings of their seats.
Expecting a long, long day I wake at 0500 as the luxurious pre-dawn spreads across the sky and the birds all begin their morning calls.
I’m on the track before 0700. It is sandy. Corrugated. Dusty. But not too much. A bit of a slide here. A bit of a wumpa wumpa wumpa there. All with dust. I simply plod, letting Dreamer ride the corrugations and grinding through the sandy bits. Only once did I have to get off and haul Dreamer and Zi-Biddi across a few meters of particularly nasty stuff. Slow going.
In Billiluna I replace supplies and try to call Ram to let her know I’m OK given I’m now well over a week later than I said I’d be. My arch-nemesis Telstra had to have a go. Phone. Phone card. How hard can it be? Buy phone card, stick in phone, dial number and use the credit. A tried and trusted technology well over 20 years old. Not here.
I end up with a Country Calling Card, complete with font 8 (or even smaller) instructions spread over both sides of an A4 piece of plastic-paper meticulously folded into eight cantilevers and then folded entirely in half until it is the same size as the credit-card-sized Country Calling Card. I need to scratch to reveal the “Card Number”, which takes quite a bit of scratching partly erasing the card’s number in the process.
To call I need to dial a five-digit number, then enter the Country Calling Card’s twelve digit ID number, then the 0011 international dial-out code Australia uses, then Ram’s eleven digit phone number, including Sweden’s country code. A cool thirty-two digits. All of which need to be flawlessly entered, obviously. I get a “Please dial 1800 815700 for assistance” message.
One deep breath later I call 1800 815 700 and speak with an Indian-accented Gentleman who’s committed to helping me. As we progress through the support call he tells me he’s getting no joy checking up Country Calling Card online.
Another deep breath later I suggest he checks the card I’ve just bought by entering the twelve digits into his system. This is a great idea he thinks. My card has expired. I ask him to change the second last digit from an 8 into a 3. Bingo. When I scratched the card I erased much of the 3 and didn’t know if it was a 3 or an 8. It is a 3.
Ram doesn’t answer. Asleep I presume.
I load my supplies, top up my water and head off. Am not too sure about my water supplies. I’ve 17 litres for 230 km and two nights. Assuming I can do the kilometres necessary. It’s kinda on the edge given temperature on the handlebars are likely to be in the high 30s and there’s a north-easterly a-blowin’. A headwind. It’s five litres per day. It should be enough.
My ability to ‘do the kilometres’ is based on four important aspects of the ride, in no particular order:
- Road. As in good or bad.
- Temperature. Higher = harder.
- Topography. Declines = good. Inclines = bad, as is undulating.
- Wind. Tailwind = good. Headwinds suck.
The Tanami Road in Western Australia is almost all bad. Temperatures above mid-30s drive water consumption significantly, particularly towards the end of the day. Nyarna lies at 271 metres elevation, about on par with Lake Gregory, THE regional depression suggesting I’m gonna be climbing out of a huge depression and I know there’s a range coming up. And the wind is decidedly north-east. A headwind.
If the ride is a two nighter I don’t need a full five litres day three coz I’ll end up in Halls Creek. But if I need three nights, it’ll be a lot closer. Erwin tells me of a tank some 25 km north of Billiluna. A bit too soon to be really handy. Let’s see.
The Tanami is tough, especially with the headwind. Fortunately the road oscillates between north-east, direct into the wind, and north-west resulting in a milder cross-wind. It’s gravelly and rough, sandy and corrugated. Sometimes though I find a wicked sweet spot at the edge and can ride a good or two gears higher. For a long, long stretch I ride in a hard-pan track parallel but a metre lower than the actual road. Other times the shoulder is firm and smooth. But for long, long longer sections it’s simply plod and try to find the least-worst path through the stony/sandy/corrugations as the temperature climbs to 38oC on the handlebars. And it’s up. A constant gentle incline. Climbing climbing climbing.
I check out Erwin’s tank, drink deep and top up my supplies.
Finally the turn-off to the Wolfe Creek Crater. Reputation suggests this is going to be a tough 23 km. My legs are tied, I’m perpetually thirsty although I am not de-hydrated. Am not looking forward to this. I take a break at an abandoned store where I notice I’ve a broken spoke. That would explain the sharp ‘ping’ I heard earlier.
The Wolfe Creek Crater access road’s reputation is well earned. Since it’s not a ‘road’ there’s not a lot of maintenance, as far as I can tell. A narrow road constrained between two soft embankments, there is a horrendous five kilometre stretch of really deep sandy corrugations. Ka-wokka ka-wokka ka-wokka. Am really plodding, direct into that headwind, dust a-plenty.
I’m considering what it would take to set up rolling crowd-source funding to pay for more frequent grading of such roads. Surely the thousands (tens of?) travellers wouldn’t mind putting in one hundred dollars each then voting on which God-awful bit of Australia should get graded? When all of a sudden I come across … a … grader! I look to the sky but, of course, there’s no Hand of God coz I was not praying for a grader but c’mon, remember that bit about coincidences I mentioned before? A grader for God’s sake!
Very freshly graded road can be quite tricky but it’s a life-time’s better than what it was. After five kilometres of fresh graded road it is clear that the grader must be working back from the crater for the road is distinctly less corrugated, though still soft and dodgy, and slooow going in places.
After heading east for fifteen kilometres the track heads due north and it’s soft more than corrugated. There are gates. At one, eight kilometres from the crater, there are some station buildings and a large solar panel. Large solar panels mean a pump. Pump means a bore. A bore means water. You get the picture. I’ve a lot of water and don’t want to lose even more time. I need to set up camp, cook then fix a busted spoke and daylight is running away. I plod on.
Next to the main track is a smaller one. Am tempted to try it to see if it is better than the main one but figure it would be too much of a psychological blow if it turned out to be even more soft and sandy.
Eventually I arrive at the camp site. I do pretty well actually setting up camp and cooking within an hour. And taking less than an hour to repair the busted spoke, by headlamp. Even did a bit of wheel de-wobbling.
Tomorrow, visit the Crater, then enjoy 23 km of pain back to the Tanami, then try for 70 kilometres. If I make that then I’ll make Halls Creek in two nights. I’ll see where 1600 has me. Now to sleep. 0530 or earlier wake up. Gives me nine hours of sleep. Not quite enough to rest the legs but it’s gonna have to be enough.
30 July 2016
0500 wake up, I hear my 0530 alarm ring as I’m drinking coffee and packing. By 0600 I’m looking into an impressive near perfect circular crater, the result of 1000 of tonnes of celestial rock slamming into Australia 300 000 years ago. It begs time spent checking out the middle of the crater and looking at the intense deformation in the rocks of the rim. Only I’ve 80-odd kilometres of ride, 23 km of which are simply not pleasant and the remainder a plod mostly into a solid headwind. Water is a concern. If I make Halls Creek tomorrow I’ve plenty. If I need one more night out I should have enough, but my contingency, that little extra I like to have with me, will be exhausted. Spending several hours checking out the crater will have to wait until Ram and I return here next year. Time to ride.
By 0700 I’m thumping back towards the first gate, about 1500 m from the crater.
Psychologically I am far better positioned to deal with the potential disappointment of The Little Track, the one that parallels the soft, gooey and mildly corrugated main one. And it begins right here, so I turn onto it and find it is a dream!
For near eight kilometres I trundle along quite contentedly musing how much better for me had I tried it yesterday afternoon, the ride a dream, the kilometres zipping past.
At the second gate, where the buildings and solar panel are I stop to look around. Very conveniently there is a hose at head height sticking out of the fence which surrounds the solar panel, and a tap. The water tastes great. I refill my daily riding supply, about 2.5 litres. Now I know I have enough, especially as I’m on the trail with plenty of time to grind and bump my way back to the Tanami and plod my way towards Halls Creek.
The track swings west and at least I face the fifteen kilometres of Urgh! with a tailwind. Progressing I await The Struggle: soft deep corrugations for kilometres. Only … THERE ARE NONE!
The Grader Dudes have wiped away all my concerns. Brilliant.
A short break at the abandoned building, psyche myself up for the Tanami and I head off.
It is a long slow day with strong headwinds, sandy and corrugated. I don’t even try for speed. No point, would only burn the muscles hammer Dreamer and Zi-Biddi and chew through the water. I know how to ride these roads now, let them come let them express themselves ride with the road not over it and simply accept the kilometres achieved by 1600.
Kilometre 70, ten short of my desired 80 and only around 1400 means I’m doing OK when I come across an impossible to miss large black tank on a pimple of a hill right next to the road on the eastern side. It suggests water. Immediately to the west is a small shed. I check it out. A pump. A bore. A hand-painted sign on the roadside warns drivers that there’s a pipeline crossing underneath. Interesting.
A small group of cattle cross the road heading east right past the tank. Hmmm … cattle need water daily. A grungy track heads east right past the tank too, which I follow. A hundred meters further up lies what I’m looking for … a cattle trough. By the time I get off Dreamer the cattle have dispersed and I’ve the trough to myself. The water tastes great. I wonder how/why Erwin, my supplier of water-supply information along the Tanami missed this one.
Not only do I drink deep and long I take a ‘shower’ and wash my riding clothes. I’m not bothered about riding in wet clothes, 36oC and a strong wind will dry them, and me, pretty darned fast.
Had I known about this wonderfully convenient tank in advance my ride north of Nyarna would have looked quite different.
Now I really have no problems with water.
I rejoin the Tanami to do ten more kilometres and make camp.
A couple of vehicles stop to ask if I’m OK. One is the Aboriginal grader off-sider who I waved to yesterday bumping my way to Wolfe Creek. “Do you wanna a lift” I’m asked, “to get off the corrugations?”. I laugh and thank him and his mates for making my ride sooo much easier this morning and decline his kind offer, for I am gonna ride the rest of the Tanami to Halls Creek. He laughs and heads off, wishing me well. Another car which stopped is driven by Aborigines asking “All good?”, grinning and wishing me well as they drive off after I answer yes. No white drivers stop.
I am at kilometre eighty but the bush is thick and a *ucking fence runs on the eastern side of the road. There had been a gate a few kilometres earlier and I noticed that a gate tends to appear every three or so kilometres so figured I’d take the next one. Only, the fence just keeps on methodically going. I want to camp on the eastern side to avoid the huge clouds of dust which drift far over the vegetation to the west colouring them a dirty-red in comparison to the matt-green of the bush on the eastern side.
Just when I’m reconciling myself to humping Dreamer through the tight scrub to the west a gate appears, right when I need one and a track disappears east.
A long hard day done. After I set up camp and eaten I take a few night-sky photos, trying to capture the eternally captivating Milky Way so brilliantly splayed across the heavens above me.
31 July 2016
Awake before my alarm, set for 0530 which doesn’t wake me anyway. A few birds calling in the dawn. Four degrees centigrade inside the tent. Zero outside. Not especially in a rush to get going. I am ending up in a town. Back to civilisation after twenty-three days of desert. I think. First coffee and the rest of the double chocolate muffin I bought in Billiluna.
Fifty-five kilometres to the end of the Tanami and the asphalt of the Great Northern Highway and a further seventeen to Halls Creek. Meatloaf keeps going through my head … “ … I think he’s gonna make it” before Ellen Foley comes in with “STOP RIGHT THERE … “. I banish such thoughts refusing to create a self-fulfilling prophecy. For I AM GONNA FINISH RIDING THE TANAMI come hell or high water, dust sand and corrugations, relentless incline, howling headwinds and the occasional Mother*ucker 4WD-ers racing past as if I am but yet another vermin on the road which shall be effortlessly dispatched by their roo- and bull-bars. I am enjoying myself.
Terrain starts coming up. Hills. The beginning of the Baily Range. The Tanami crosses the Baily Range.
Climb climb climb. 271 m at Nyarna to 501 m just north of Ruby Downs Station. Climb + road (bad) + heat (36oC) + headwinds = charming day. Plod plod plod, but I am enjoying myself regardless. Elements of the Flinders Ranges, the road rocky and broken. I know how to ride such roads.
The graders are active here too. The same team as on the Wolfe Creek Road, we pass greetings. Nice guys.
Graders and rocky roads create a bit of a hazard. The corrugations get brutally ground down resulting in freshly broken rock and stone everywhere. Puncture potential. Worse, irreparable side-wall damage. Meatloaf comes back and I banish him again. The Mighty Mondial Marathons have survived worst, they’ll survive this. Only they were a good 2000 km fresher last time.
Once over the range I find the eastern shoulder to the road is near perfectly smooth and goes for kilometres. In fact it goes until the border, minus a few short sections. The 4WD-ers haven’t cottoned onto this yet, still humping the corrugations whilst I cruise along.
I know the junction’s coming up not coz of any ‘Well Done! You’re soon to End the Tanami!’ but because a large sign tells me there’s a fruit and veggy quarantine bin awaiting me in five kilometres.
Then come the signs for vehicles just starting the Tanami, warning it’s gravel, there’s dust, loose surfaces and corrugations and to drive carefully, that the road is open.
Then I see a car whizzing along a road I can’t. A 2WD car. Going fast. It is on asphalt. The Great Northern Highway.
A curve in the road and there, finally, is The Junction and the gravel of the Tanami Road terminates against the asphalt of the Great Northern Highway.
I take a short break, eat some of the offending fruit, enjoy a drink, take a lot of photos, realise I’m going to have ride on the left hand side of the road, obey ‘normal’ road rules and watch out for 53 m long three-trailered monsters and enjoy the sublime comfort of riding asphalt for the seventeen kilometres to Halls Creek.
After riding around checking out the accommodation options I end up in the Halls Creek Motel in a staff-room for 100$ per night, rather than 160$ for a ‘normal’ room. I need a room for I’ve a lot of cleaning and chilling and relaxing and just not being in a tent to do.
1190-ish kilometres, 23 days:
The Tanami Has Been Done.
Halls Creek 02 August 2016