A lot has happened. Too much too fast too often in fact. The short intense Arctic Summer, hours, days learning flyfishing in a canoe in isolated sections of the Kalix River accessible only to those who know the channels and the River’s watery braids.
Huge gädda and trophy sized harr (pike & grayling). Never more than three fish at any one time, but kilos of meat for a mix of sushi, fish cake, fish’n’chips, baked, sautéed, and frozen as supplies for the long winter ahead.
Countless hikes over the small island just in front of our house, letting the dogs run crazy and loose for there is no one living here, large animals and no way for the dogs to get lost. Berry picking. Red for lingon and that wonderful blue of blåbär.
Hunting mushrooms as the seasons turn and the colours spread. Drying them to enjoy over the long winter coming.
Futilely trying to make a break in the Swedish market, exasperated by a continuous lack of engagement. Believing it ‘me’ until all the other emigres report the same dissociation and barriers to integration. Apprehension building as one by one all the other emigres describe their plans to leave. And we start planning our own.
Being evicted, forcing us to take on the introverted property market severely distorted by both mining and tourism. LKAB has to move the entire town of 10 000 inhabitants or more since the town sits atop huge cavities deep in the ground which are slowly collapsing taking the town with it. Flush with mining company relocation money those 1000s of people are vacuuming up all available accommodation for kilometres around Kiruna. In both a spectacular display of appalling foresight and planning, and typical Swedish Lagom neither the company nor the local government made any effort to offset the inevitable dire lack of supply and huge demand for accommodation.
Property owners prefer to rent AirBnB, further decreasing supply. And the large numbers of empty stugas dotted around the landscape? Well, they are for owners some near some far who may use it a couple of times a year. Since having a summer or winter stuga someplace is a cultural icon in Sweden (and the whole Scandic/Nordic region), no way you can rent them either.
We cannot afford what little accommodation there is.
A friend comes to our rescue and we move into his Lille Stuga (Small Hut) next to his ancestral home in Holmajärvi. We then get centre stage as his rampant alcoholism destroys his marriage and alienates us.
Lille Stuga is poorly insulated, has running water but no shower, and requires us to shit in a bucket. I piss outside against a tree. Cubic metres of wood is gonna be necessary to keep the place bearable.
As we sit in Lille Stuga deep in the most snow-less winter in anyone’s memory thereby failing to provide a thick insulating layer of snow, the pipes froze so we’ve no water, then the drains froze which means we can’t even shit in the bucket and we must both piss against a tree outside. We look each deep in the eye and conclude ‘There’s godda be a better way’ … We godda get out of this place, if it’s the last thing we ever do …
Watching Ram increasingly breakdown under assault from work and lifestyle she no longer enjoys and in a place she no longer connects too.
Our biggest mistake was to not take advantage of that short intense summer and flee. To where? Anywhere. Sometimes somewhere anywhere nowhere is better than where you are. But we didn’t. Partly because Ram still believed we could make it work in Sweden, partly because we’d put so much effort into it, partly because she’s still intimidated by jumping off the edge of the world and learning to fly …
I have raged and raged on the wings of Angels
And danced and danced on the tip of the Devil’s tongue
And yea I have fallen from those wings
and yea I have been swallowed and excreted by that Devil
Long did I fall
And hard did I land
Yea I did
Yea I did
And woe sometimes it is hard
and woe sometimes takes it long
Yea it does
Yea it does
To pick myself up off the rocks
dust myself down and start again
But each time the Angels they fly higher
And each time that Devil’s tongue dances sweeter
And I look at the vista and I think
Yea Life if Good
yea Life is Great
There is only one Life
And it is Now
So I continue to Rage and Rage upon the wings of Angels
And I continue to dance and dance on the tip of the Devil’s tongue
Yea I do
Yea I do
I, on the other hand, have a lot of experience of falling off the edge of the world.
Increasingly we scour the internet for jobs somewhere else to fund the Shift, the Move south. There are plenty, flawlessly suited to our respective experiences and skills and education. From the majority were hear absolutely nothing back. From the few we get only a rejection email. No calls, no interviews. The same companies advertise for the same role since they are ‘expanding’ and need more people. We apply again. We hear nothing or receive only the rejection email. We think it’s us, our Swedish not good enough, our skills just a little too oblique, our experience just a bit too non-aligned. Then the other highly educated foreigners we know tell us exactly the same experiences. And we realise it is not us. Sweden, Europe, America, Australia, they are shutting down, battening the hatches and the migrant is no longer welcome.
We cast the net further. The Netherlands, Romania, Australia. Wherever we go there is challenge. It’s a new world out there. No one welcomes the Stranger any more. Wherever we go we shall be the Stranger.
By the end of 2018 and beginning 2019 I’ve never been so sick for so long. One brutal cold after another assaulting me. The cough goes on for weeks, my immune system shattered. Ram’s got her own health issues which the health systems seems utterly incapable of analysing to work out what is actually wrong.
Since arriving in October 2017 and stretching deep into 2018 I have been stateless, the Swedish state saying ‘Na! Sorry Mate, not gonna letcha in’, or words to that effect. I’m allowed to be in Sweden by virtue of the single market. But I am stateless. Not a fucking country in the entire world lays claim to me. No health insurance, no representation. I tried to take advantage of the EU reciprocal health agreements. The Brits killed this. I have to be resident in the UK before moving abroad to get it. I last resided in the UK in 1995.
Even the casual work I get doesn’t help. ‘Sure’ says the Swedish state ‘you can work here, we’ll tax you, your spending will support the Swedish economy, but that don’t mean you have any rights!’.
Looking back, I knew it was time to leave Sweden almost as soon as I got there. When Kaunis Iron’s CEO said “I’ll keep you in mind” after hours of discussion about the need for her project to have an enviro-guy onboard. The same project I developed over 5 years. There is no one in the world who knows the enviro side of that project than me. And I didn’t get it.
Golder are relentlessly seeking experts with my skills and experience. I’ve a friend who works there. My collaboration with Golder goes back years. I can’t get a foot in the door.
All of this before the end of 2017.
Traditional human response to adversary? When the food runs out and the water’s scarce, when the climate changes and life’s unbearable? Move, relocate, migrate. It is no surprise early 2018 when I wake up and realise in Australia I’ve a fully armed and operational cycle-touring phenomenon called Dreamer and Ziflex and that the Cape York season will soon open.
Ram takes a dim view of this idea, for some strange reason. I don’t go.
Then something completely out of the blue … Wil calls me one day. “We’re gonna do the Canning Stock Route” he tells me. “With the Landcruiser”. Shortly before leaving Australia Wil and I got a little drunk and I got him to commit to riding the Canning Stock Route. The next day, sober, he reneged, explaining “A promise doesn’t count when you’re drunk”. I’d left Australia believing I’d never do the CSR.
“Jen and I’ve been discussing it” Wil continues. “We’d be happy to act as support vehicle for you if you wanna ride the CSR. Looking at May 2019”.
The Canning Stock Route is the most arduous cycling route in the world. There are harder rides, like the young woman who rode to the South Pole, but that’s not a route, that’s something else. Few cyclists have done, perhaps two dozen, perhaps. All on fatbikes, because Sand Is The Bike Killer and the CSR has 800 of the Great Sandy Desert’s finest sand dunes to cross along its 2000km length. There are no towns, settlements, shops, supplies, food or reliable water along the CSR. Barely 900 vehicles – those stupendously decked out and equipped 4WD – manage it per year, most in groups for security.
Did I wanna do it? Are bears catholic, does the pope shit in the woods, the sun come up in the east, and was Luke Skywalker a Jedi after fighting Darth Vader?
All I need is a bike that can do it. The Mulan back track lies at the top of the CSR. Dreamer couldn’t make it. I had to get rescued. Therefore, do I need a different kind of bike. A fatbike. I look into getting one. It’s March 2018.
What I didn’t expect was just how long it took to get the bike set up. Puoltsa and Holmajärvi are remote Arctic settlements far removed from any high-end expedition quality bike manufacturers. Santos, my fav frame builder, is 2700km to the south and there’s little in between.
Most fatbikes are built for short-term sports-performance with bike-packing thrown in. There isn’t a dedicated long-distance fatbike tourer. Whilst an off-the-shelf fatbike would work and has ‘done’ the CSR, very much in the sports-performance and bike-packing style, my trip is a whole lot more. Wil and Jen may support me for the CSR but that’s it.
It takes months. And months. And months. Frame builder of choice? For a fatbike tourer? Santos. They who created Dreamer, who never failed me. So far so good. What I didn’t expect is the alarming lack of decisive information about what’s best in a long distance fatbike tourer and there simply aren’t the components visibly portrayed on multiple websites. But it comes down, ultimately, to rims and tires.
Countless emails to numerous fatbike tire manufacturers scattered across the globe. Relentless searches across endless forums. And they all come back with: tubeless. What else? Lower pressures, inbuilt puncture mitigation through copious green goo as a sealant. “Why wouldn’t you use tubeless?” Schwalbe asks me rhetorically in an email.
The small print tells me … should you get a flat (ie: the goo doesn’t plug the puncture), stick in a tube and repair it at the next bike shop. The. Next. Bike. Shop. Err, once I leave Perth ‘the next bike shop’ is Alice Springs, 5000km later. I need autonomy. Even if I manage to repair the tire there’s another caveat: to set the tubeless tire on the rim you godda inflate fast and hard. As in, with a compressor. I do not have a compressor. So, the bright sparks at Schwalbe have come up with a ‘portable’ compromise. A ‘tire booster’ (https://www.schwalbe.com/nl/zubehoer.html). It’s huge. With a floor pump inflate to 11 bar (yes, eleven) couple it to the valve and release in a single hit. BOOM! Tire set on rim. Oh, don’t forget to add 400ml of green slime as sealant.
I can’t imagine not getting a flat or three on the thin relatively unprotected fatbike tires. To strengthen like touring tires would make the fatbike tires unimaginably heavy.
Clear as day that tubeless is never gonna work on 8 000km trip through some of the world’s most isolated deserts.
Feedback from Surly tell me their rims can tolerate 130kg load, across both axles. Err … me and troll come in at 100kg. Bags and trailer empty add another 10kg. Leaves me 20kg for all my stuff. And there will be times when I’m hauling 20kg of water plus the rest of my gear.
It takes forever to work it all out. Santos don’t actually know. Nor do Surly, Schwalbe and the numerous other fatbike, rim and tire companies I contact.
Nine months after placing the order, first week of January 2019, Troll arrives.
First ride, 2030 on an Arctic night saw me on the snowmobile track outside Lille Stuga on Kalix River, the Northern Lights above. Fantastic introduction to fatbike riding.
Whilst Wil and Jen will support me riding the CSR I still godda get to the beginning of it to rendezvous with them. And I’ve godda go someplace else solo once at the end of it. Flip out the map of Australia and dream Oh! Just. A. Little. Adding all the bits together it comes to some 8000km with the vast majority of it off-road.
This is The Plan:
Head from Wil and Jen’s place in Mandurah, crawling through Jarrahdale to Glen Forrest and a couple of nights at my parents, before heading east to Northam and my brothers’.
From there I weave a path through the wheatbelt until it turns into scrub somewhere north of Cleary. Bouncing off Payne’s Find I take the back road to Sandstone and thence north along unnamed tracks to Wiluna and the start of the CSR. 1200km.
1900km later the CSR terminates against the Tanami Road at Billiluna 170km south of Halls Creek.
Undoubtedly I’ll travel with Wil and Jen in the comfort of their Landcruiser via Wolffe Creek to Halls Creek. From there W&J head north-north-west into the Kimberly and I head almost due east along the Duncan Road aiming for Kalkarindji. I may take a break here and disappear to Darwin for a week or so with Rhys and his young family.
Otherwise, a few kilometres east of Kalkarindji I turn south on the Larjamanu Road. After 333km of some of the driest bits of Australia cutting through the heart of the Tanami Desert all I’ve managed to do is get to the infamous Tanami Road. A place not known for abundant water. Unless you’ve taken contact with North Star who operate the mine there and who reply they are happy to provide water.
Back down the Tanami to Yuendumu, south through Papunya and Namatjira Drive to Alice Springs. A week there, then along the Larapinta Drive to Hermmansburg taking in Palm Valley. Before breaking free of the (almost) well-trodden path to ride through Areyonga until meeting up with the (in)famous Mereenie Loop (again) and the 140km of dirt to Watarrka and asphalt heaven for 273 until Yulara and Uluru.
After that it’s the even more infamous Great Central Road for another 1200km until Laverton in Western Australia. And another 1100km more or less until I finally make back to Mandurah.
A kool 7600km without all the little deviations which inevitably add up to a lot of kilometres. Rounding up, an 8000km Epic, with the vast majority on gravel road or track, or route.
I’m not taking the tablet with me and won’t be updating the blog during the ride. There are long distances between the few places to connect, via mobile, to the internet. And I need the weight for water. Some stretches exceed 250km which on the wide-tired Troll is a four day ride. It is not inconceivable that I’ll be carrying in excess of 20litres of water. Heavy water, so to speak.
Wil will be updating his blog more frequently although during the CSR we will go dark (as they say) Wil and Jen’s blog … wiljensadventures.blog
Tomorrow I leave.
C U in like 8 months …
Mandurah, 8 April 2019