‘The Long way Home’
I thought I would be rejoicing at the completion of the Canning Stock Route, but as I neared the end I found myself pensively reflecting. I was leaving a commercial-free area where the clock has little relevance and crime is non existent but tomorrow I would cover new territory.
I left only footprints, thousands of them and picked up 750 discarded beer cans. I felt good; the track was a little cleaner now.
When Billiluna was in sight, I quickened my pace. These were the first sheds and houses that I had seen for 1600 kms. I walked on, edging around the compound and passing a vehicle rubbish tip. A few minutes later, with a hurting shin, and 60 km for the day under my belt, I was filmed by Tim and Mike at the junction of the Canning Stock Route and the Tanami Track. My walk had come to an end. Although I was at the end of another gruelling stage, celebrations were far from elaborate. We toasted my success with a milo drink and ate a solitary biscuit that we had brought with us for this momentous occasion.
So behind me was a 800km paddle, a 810km cycle and a 1600km walk/run of the Canning Stock Route. This Chapter of my Around Australia Story is about my mountain bike ride to Alice Springs and to the Simpson Desert on the Tanami Track, my walk across the Simpson Desert to Birdsville and my cycle from Birdsville to Cooktown (where I start kayaking from Cooktown to Cape York).
With nothing much more to do, other than reflect on my walk, I jumped into the vehicle and we headed towards Halls Creek. The road was dusty, corrugated and littered with cattle. To make matters worse, apart from darkness falling, the steering on the vehicle was atrocious. The boys had told me some weeks ago that it wasn’t steering too well but I didn’t realise how bad it was. The car had a mind of its own. Occasionally, and without any reason, the vehicle would swerve off to one side of the road. It was a scary ride and I felt more fearful for my life at this point than at any time before. To save camping fees we bedded down near the Great Northern Highway turnoff and the Tanami Track.
August 8th. Near Halls Creek.
When daylight arrived we headed into Halls Creek. Halls Creek is perched on the edge the Great Sandy Desert, 2832 kms north of Perth. It was Western Australia’s first gold mining town after its discovery in 1885. In its heyday, between 1885-1887, 10,000 men searched for gold around the town. Now Halls Creek relies on tourism, pastoral and mining industries. A large number of Aboriginals make up the population of 1200 people living in the town. The Kimberley region is home for a big percentage of Aborigines, most living in towns or communities but some have gone back to the bush to live their traditional way.
At the roadhouse I called Jenny to tell her the good news; I had completed another section of my trip. We checked around Halls Creek for a mechanic and found that Baz Toyota was the only place that did wheel alignments and the earliest time that they could look at it was 1.30pm the following day. I wasn’t very chuffed about waiting but I had no option if I wanted to get the vehicle roadworthy again.
After booking into the caravan park, I rang Geraldton ABC, Karratha ABC, George Manning- Kimberley ABC and Ian Hazelby, Statewide ABC. I was interviewed by Ian Hazelby and broadcast at 4.30pm that afternoon. The interview finished off with the song by Chicago – If You Leave Me Now. It was an especially nostalgic song for both Jenny and myself, as it had been a hit in 1976 when I’d met up with Jenny again after a 6 year absence. I had returned to England from Australia and then started seeing Jenny again. A few months later I decided to travel to Africa. Jenny didn’t want me to go and when-ever the song ‘If You Leave Me Now’ came on the radio, we both thought about my journey. It has remained our special song.
I washed my clothes and checked the post office for letters. Linda had sent me a postcard and some small wooden pipes that she’d made for me whilst on an arts project in Exmouth. Jenny sent me some Kimberley magazines and a letter.
We had a feed at the local pub that night. Steak and salad for $9.00 and it was worth every cent. The beer though was a little overpriced, $2.60 a can. Back at camp I wrote until 11.00pm. It was a moonlit night and the air was filled with barking dogs and shouting – a far cry from our silent camps on the stock route.
August 9th. Halls Creek.
I was up at 6am because of the aircraft noise, the birds and the people. At 7.15am I had an interview with George Manning. The interview seemed to go well. One of my better ones. I finished off 13 letters and 3 postcards before taking them to the post office.
Just after lunch we took the vehicle into Baz’s for a check over and then spent $114 on shopping for our next leg. When we returned to Baz’s, they informed me that my wheels were about to fall off. It was going to cost $450 for the front bearings and more if the back wheels had to be done. I was shocked at the estimate and somehow didn’t quite trust their assessment of the situation. We then tracked down a small mechanic Steve Henz, who worked around the corner. Steve looked at it and announced that it definitely was not wheel bearings but could be the tie rod ends. He replaced the drive side tie rod end and did a manual wheel alignment with his tape. The price altogether was $140.
We moved to the pub for another evening meal of chips and salad. The chips were good value but the salad portion was small and poor quality. John complained so we received another portion. Food, whilst not an issue on the road, suddenly became important to us when we had the opportunity to indulge in something different.
A rodeo in town had brought a number of cowboys to the pub and the noise was quite unbearable and fights brewed. Aborigines were over to one side of the bar, while the whites mingled on the other. The atmosphere was not conducive to our kind of social outing, so we decided not to hang around.
Back at the campsite we called in to see Mike and Henny who had decided to part company with us and go their own way. I was quite relieved. We said goodbye and parted as friends.
I wrote on postcards in the Swagman Roadhouse and a letter to the kids at Alison’s Duke’s Midvale Primary School. The kids were interested in my trip and I’d received a number of letters from them.
Instead of staying the night in the caravan park we motored back out to the camp spot at the Tanami Track turn off.
August 10th. Tanami Track Turn Off.
By 7.30 we were on the road heading back to the Canning Stock Route turn off. It had been dark when we drove through the hills on the way to Halls Creek so we missed the beautiful scenery which was stunning in the early morning light. The mixture of soft colours of the rock and surrounding vegetation made it look like a picture postcard.
Passing Ruby Downs we came across some Aborigines who had broken down. We stopped and helped. They had a flat battery, the fan belt was off, and it wouldn’t start without a tow. The car was a sorry sight like most of the un-roadworthy cars around this part of the world. A German guy, who was with them and who looked as if he had been out in the bush too long, said he had been living with the Aborigines and eating nothing but bush tucker for months.
We stopped at the Carranya Station, 140 km south of Halls Creek, to pick up fuel and visit Wolf Creek Meteorite Crater. The crater is 850 metres in diameter and 50 metres deep and is the second largest meteorite crater in the world. The rim around the crater was quite uneven and inside a small forest of wattle trees grew on a flat plain. Returning to the station shop, I bought a Mars bar, a Coke, and postcards before returning to the turn off for lunch.
Tim & John at the Wolf Creek Meteorite Crater.
It was 1.30pm by the time I started a new mountain bike leg of my expedition. Four huge trucks with house units on board passed, leaving me to cycle in a long cloud of dust. I cycled past one of the trucks on the side of the road; it had a puncture but later caught up with me again. Four women in a vehicle stopped to check me out and we talked for a while until they motored on, leaving me to cope with the soft sand and severe corrugations that slowed my pace. In fact, I lost so much speed on one section of sand that I fell off my bike.
August 11th. Near Balgo Aboriginal Community.
I left camp 3kms from the turn off to the Balgo Aboriginal community. The weather soon became hot, which contributed to my sore, sweaty backside. The road surface changed frequently from gravel corrugations and thick soft sand to fine bull-dust. I tried padding my bum to ease the pain from the corrugations but it barely helped. The afternoon Milo and sandwich stop gave me enough time for my backside to cool down.
It was hard work and painful but I knew as the days passed I would get used to the discomfort and start taking it in my stride. In the deep afternoon, just as the heat was moving below 36 degrees I noticed a Thorny Devil Lizard, not much longer than 10 inches long, creep slowly across the track. I stopped and walked back to it. I hadn’t seen one for years. It was camouflaged against the reddish sand and looked quite deadly with its spikes protruding from its body. It was a beauty, a brilliantly crafted lizard that was truly unique in appearance. I slowly, and with some caution, lowered my hand and clasped my fingers around its fleshy body. There was no struggle on its behalf as it allowed me to take it to the other side of the road and place it in the scrub.
Thorny Devil Lizard.
I cycled on, quite happy with the rescue mission I had just undertaken. My spirits were high and I felt like cycling faster and singing. What a difference meeting such a lizard can make to one’s outlook and enjoyment in life. Climbing a slight rise, I could see a stationary car on its crest. When I reached it, I found the driver had just moved another Thorny Devil off the road. I continued further on struggling with the sand patches and zig-zagging across the track to find the firmest and flattest going. A cloud of dust came across the rise and a vehicle driven by a women driver stopped next to me.
Melissa McCord started talking to me, wanting to know what I was doing etc. She looked quite exhausted and hot. A few minutes into our conversation and after my finding out that she was a writer/photographer a guy sat up in the back of the vehicle. He had been sleeping. They both looked the worse for wear. The heat and long dusty drive was taking its toll. Melissa stepped from the vehicle with some difficulty. It was then that I realised that she was several months pregnant.
The sun was falling lower in the sky and as we talked the colours became more impressive. Melissa waited for the right opportunity when the light was at its best, then she started taking photo after photo. Apparently my red cycling shorts lit up the frame, bringing brightness and vibrant colour to the photograph. I posed in as many positions, as a push bike would allow, until she had taken about 50 shots. We then drank coffee while Andrew moved around taking movie footage as Melissa asked me questions and taped my every word. They said they were deeply impressed with my point of view and interest in life. I wondered if the story would ever go to print. I had been interviewed many times before but very few interviews had been printed. It didn’t really matter as I found it an interesting experience. Melissa had already published one book about women and this book was going to focus on people who achieve, but never get a mention. The title, ‘Day By Day’, in fact when it was printed it turned out being called, ‘A Field Of Short Poppies’ and I was featured in it. They were heading to Broome via Halls Creek and then returning to Sydney via Kalgoorlie.
The photo taken by Melissa McCord which is in her book ‘A Field of Short Poppies’.
With little light left, she inserted another roll of film and started taking pictures of my hands and feet. She said the light was perfect. I couldn’t quite understand what she was going to do with such photos though. It was dark by the time the pair drove away.
This is what Melissa said in her book: ‘A Field Of Short Poppies’.
Travelling west across the Tanami was like being in a sitcom, the road was an endless dusty washboard and us the dirty laundry. It was one of those rare occasions that I drove for a couple of hours.
Seven kilometres across the West Australian border, I thought I saw something really weird ahead. It was one of those classic truckie stories about the mirage that kept coming; the mirage you almost ran over. By that stage I had accepted that I must be quite mad, driving across Australia when I was so ‘far gone’. But boy, who would even contemplate the Tanami on a pushbike?
I screeched to a halt, then reversed up alongside this kindred spirit to ask him what he had been doing further up the road. I’d seen him running all over the place, as if he had a case of electric fleas!
My heart warmed immediately, and the man introduced himself to us as Terry Bolland. As we discovered, he was a veteran of other incredible journeys, and had learnt the essential lesson of ‘easy does it’, the importance of being kind to yourself and of treating each kilometre as a personal success. On the flip side, Terry also had some very healthy things to say about accepting failure.
I’m ready for failure. If I fall off my bike and break my leg, I won’t say to myself, ‘I failed’. Instead I’ll say, ‘Well, I succeeded in doing 3500 kilometres (and a broken leg stopped me)’.
The boys would be getting worried, as I had spent a good part of an hour talking. I had no lights, so I could see little of the wheel ruts that formed the track. With extra enthusiasm, I flew along the track, hoping that I would stay on it. With straining eyes I caught a glimpse of the border sign. I was now in Northern Territory. I ran off the road but stayed on two wheels. The sand-gravel track got no better. I was told that when I crossed the border into the NT the road would improve 100%. I met Tim walking towards me with a torch. They had camped and were wondering where I had got to, so he had come searching by foot. He gave me his torch and I made my final fling towards camp. I had to steer my bike along narrow wheel ruts and keep away from the build-up of sand in the centre of the road. The sand made it impossible to move from one side to the other. The torch light went out and I lost concentration. Instantly my wheel hit the soft rut and over I went and landed on my back. Picking myself up and shaking off the dust, I walked the rest of the way to camp which was only a short distance away.
After tea, I wrote letters to the Midvale school kids until 10.30pm. The moon had risen about 10.00pm to the accompaniment of John’s and Tim’s snuffles and snores!
August 12th Sunday. Northern Territory Border.
For some reason I awoke with stomach cramps. I left camp at 8.15am NT time and soon met two vehicles from Victoria and sold two magazines. Tim also sold two more to two women travelling together.
We had a break at a water pump in the middle of nowhere. A diesel tank on a steel structure that powered it stood nearby. We took the opportunity to have a good wash. Later a worker, who seemed to come from nowhere pulled up in his truck to get some water just after we had finished. It was a bit of mystery as to where he was working.
I moved on, the temperature becoming really hot and my freshly-washed body pouring with sweat. I passed two more diesel tanks, the latter one being quite huge. An escarpment with colourful cliffs and a road with a deteriorating surface slowed my progress as I climbed the hill. A road entering from my left just before reaching the Tanami Gold Mine headed towards Lajamanu. After the junction, the road improved. The team had Milo and biscuits ready for me at my last stop before the Rabbit Flat Roadhouse. As usual it gave a boost to my energy level.
I enjoyed the improved road conditions. It allowed me to increase my speed and have a more relaxing riding style. I then noticed something black on the road verge and to my surprise it turned out to be a small Canon camera. The Rabbit Flat roadhouse was small and isolated and the office and bar area were built like a jail. It wasn’t to keep people in but to keep the locals out. Solid mesh frames were welded around the shop and bar, with a small square hole to hand the beer or goods over the counter. The woman behind the bar, who wasn’t the friendliest person on the Tanami track sounded European, apparently Yugoslavian. Although they had toilets, a satellite dish and tall trees, there was no telephone to be seen.
We bought two beers and an orange juice, costing $6.50, sat at a table and enjoyed chewing nuts. Millions of flies were also interested in our snack and as I left the roadhouse, the flies followed.
August 13th. Near Rabbit Flat Roadhouse.
The road was good but the wind was strong, so I gained no more distance than on the rough surface. Just before the Granites Mine, I skirted a dead snake on the road and was stopped by a tourist bus. Bruce, the driver, had a German and two Swiss people among his group. Six of them had bought my magazine and wanted me to sign them. Tim and John must have caught them down the road. Tim had given them a heavy hammer that I had found on the track after Bruce had mentioned that he’d lost one on the track a few trips previously.
The corrugations that had returned still buffeted my backside and the heat caused it to sweat to the max. The only relief I got was when I stopped and was able to pull down my cycle pants and let the air circulate and dry the area in question. It felt so good to do this but I had to make sure there was no traffic going by.
I passed a fairly big mine which had several trucks dumping waste on a tailings heap. The road became rougher then improved again. By the time I had finished for the night it was dark and I had completed 134 kms.
August 14th. Near Chilli Well Mt Theo turn off.
I passed the Chilli Well Mt Theo turn off early in the morning. By lunch time I had found a pair of pliers, a screwdriver and 20 cents. Tim and John drove ahead to organise a Milo stop and came across Ray Turner pulling a two wheeled barrow. Ray had been pushing the barrow for a few months trying to raise money for the Flying Doctor. This was not his first fund raising effort; it was like a part time job for him. I first met Ray when he came into the Snowgum Store to buy some outdoor gear. From then on we had tried to keep track with each other’s activities. When I arrived on the scene we spent the first five minutes taking photos I wheeled his cart and he rode my bike. We then found a flat spot to camp. Although it was only mid-afternoon, we couldn’t miss the opportunity of exchanging stories and socialising with each other. A small Vitara Suzuki slowed down when he saw all the commotion but continued when the driver realised that nothing was wrong.
We met Ray Turner who was pulling a two wheeled barrow around the country in aid of the ‘Flying Doctor’.
I gave it a go. A bit slow going.
We made camp and started to relax and talk. Ray had collected $10,000 so far but raised only $23 at Yulara (Ayers Rock village) which he was pretty upset about. “The tourists only wanted to take photos of me but gave little money”, he said. “I sometimes feel like an animal at a zoo.” The day he walked to Ayers Rock he walked for 22 hours but missed sunset by one hour, so he didn’t see it at its best. He didn’t bother climbing it, but walked straight to Alice Springs instead. When he arrived, the Flying Doctor hadn’t heard of his journey but they treated him to five days in a hotel in appreciation of his effort. He continued his journey and walked directly to Yuendumu, missing his lunchtime BBQ which the community had planned for him, because he was late. He then stayed three days at the Aboriginal township.
As we sat talking, a figure came running down the road. We walked towards him and we could see he was really distressed. He told us that he had rolled his car a few kms down the track. His wife was okay but in shock. We cleared room in the vehicle and John, Ray and myself raced towards the accident sight. At the 5 kilometre point we saw the vehicle lying on its side with Linda (his partner) sitting close by, near some gear and Jerry cans. Heavily gouged wheel marks crisscrossed the sandy track for several hundred metres, until they stopped suddenly, several metres before the vehicle. The vehicle had rolled a few times from there on. Linda looked and sounded okay, a little shaken but with no injuries. Four of us lifted the Vitara back on its wheels. It was certainly lighter than my Toyota. Both the tyres on the driver’s side were flat and the rims were bent. The driver’s side door was jammed and the windscreen was smashed but still intact. The whole car was damaged badly.
The Vitara was on its side when we reached it but four of us were able to lift it up-right again.
John connected the air hose and pumped up the back tyres but the front tyre was too far gone so it had to be changed. Once everything seemed okay, Chris tried the engine, which started. Then he went for a test run. The car was mobile so we loaded it up again. They had seven heavy Jerry cans full of fuel stacked in the back of the small vehicle but luckily none of them had leaked on impact.
Linda jumped into our vehicle. John drove, and Ray and I climbed on top, while Chris drove his car back. Chris was from Halifax and Linda from Huddersfield in England. Back at camp, I erected my tent so they could use it for the night. They didn’t have any camping gear. John soon had tea ready for the six of us, which included sweets, rice pudding and damper. The night was cold and windy and around the fire Chris told us that he had hit a cow and destroyed his car when he drove towards Halls Creek on a previous occasion. They stayed in Halls Creek for a year after that and were now on their way back to work there again.
Ray’s diet was not very inspiring. He lived on oats, muesli bars, 2 minute noodles, rice cakes, chocolate, nuts and raisins and soup powders. No wonder he tucked into John’s vege stew. He told us how he felt unsafe sometimes camping alone in the bush. He had been robbed on his travels but he didn’t have much for them to take. He now took no chances. “I go to bed with this every night”, he said, producing a giant knife. I also have this Nulla Nulla, (big stick) for protection and this stock whip.
I retired after catching up with my diary at 12.30am.
Chris and Linda who had the accident, joined Ray who was pulling the barrow , John, Tim and myself around the campfire.
August 15th. 72 kms West of Yuendumu.
The strong wind caused things to flap all night. Chris was up early and had the fire lit. We all sat down for breakfast in the cold air. A road-train flew by at high speed, whipping a cloud of dust through our camp.
Ray started his walk towards Halls Creek as I peddled off towards Alice Springs. He had worn out several pairs of boots so far. No wonder he needed sponsorship as they only lasted a few hundred kilometres.
Early morning breakfast time.
The weather conditions were terrible; very windy and dusty. When two road trains passed at the same time I felt very anxious for my safety until the dust cleared and I could see my way. Dust storms swept across my path frequently. I could see them coming in the distance following the dusty track, then eventually they swept past, sandblasting and blinding me.
I sighted a dingo, then a kangaroo close to patches of bare rock near Mt Doreen which stood over to my left. I had achieved only 55kms by lunch time. I felt pretty buggered after the late night and after peddling against the strong blustery wind. After riding 17 kms further, I arrived at the Aboriginal community of Yuendumu. It was not the most picturesque or tidy place but the store had a very good selection of food stuffs to satisfy our needs. I left with a Coke, an ice cream and some chocolate.
After riding over good and bad stretches of the track and having Milo and damper for afternoon tea, I only managed a pathetic 115 kms for the day.
August 16th. Near Mt Allen Road Turn-off.
We had camped among the trees just past the Mt Allen road turn-off. Cocooned in my sheltered environment I felt the day was going to be a good one. I soon changed my mind when I reached the track. The wind swept along it with force, whipping up dust storms that had worsened overnight. It continually battered me and reduced my vision to a few metres. Cycling had now become a dangerous way to travel; I couldn’t see vehicles coming my way and worst of all they couldn’t see me. The only chance I had to avoid a head-on collision was to make sure that I was always over to the left.
Cattle also became a hazard. Although very few wandered across my path, they roamed the road waiting for a disaster to happen. The track cut through some hills that were not high but to my strained, dusty eyes they were striking. I cycled on towards Napperby Creek while John took time to climb a hill and get a view of a very large salt lake. White gums lining the wide Napperby Creek gave it a stunning look. The creek itself flowed from the ranges just north of Napperby station to Lake Lewis just south west of us. It was probably Lake Lewis that John saw from the hill. A new roadhouse (Tilmouth) was being built next to the creek, so after lunch it gave us the opportunity to pig out on chocolate, essential for keeping my legs turning. The roadhouse manager, who was waiting for a lease to come through, gave me two Mars bars and an ice cream and bought two magazines from me. These little gifts of kindness and appreciation I value and remember.
The road improved, allowing me to gain some kilometres without being jarred to death. I had enough of the corrugations, the dust, and extreme heat. More and more vehicles passed at a great speed. I was of no interest to the passing vehicles any more, although Ken and Rex from Alice Springs were curious. They pulled over, bought two magazines and suggested that we stay at their place when we reached Alice. A great thought, but we already had accommodation there. By the time I reached the bitumen, which was 50 kms from the roadhouse, it was nearly dark. Here I made time for a Milo, Mars bar, muesli and biscuits and changed to my racing bike.
The difference between the two bikes and the road surface was amazing. I felt as if I was flying. With the darkness, came the chilly air. John and Tim drove behind me with the head lights on high beam showing me the way. Eventually they went ahead. I stopped every 20kms until I had completed 65 kms on the bitumen and 175 kms altogether, which gave me 75 kms to go before reaching Alice. It was severely cold when I stopped at 10.00pm, near a crossroads close to Hamilton Downs. The boys were tired out and had retired to their swags before I had arrived. But before I could sleep I needed food so I cooked some beans and soup.
August 17th. Near Hamilton Downs.
A few cars sped by at high speeds. I was also in top gear heading for the big smoke. Passing an Australian Government Communication complex brought to my attention the fact that I was entering the civilised world once again. The boys drove straight into Alice, leaving me to fight the increased traffic and fend for myself. As I turned off onto the main highway I cycled along the busiest section of my journey so far. There were hills and small river gorges that seemed to tell me I was entering the Red Centre. Varying wind shifts hindered my journey into town. I was surprised by the amount of traffic and the big light industrial area as I was expecting a smaller town, far away from technology and industrialisation. I was wrong; Alice Springs was truly in the 20th century.
Workshops, shops and hotels lined the main road towards the centre which had traffic lights, the first I had seen since leaving Geraldton 3500 km away. I reached the post office where Tim and John were parked outside. Chris, who’d had the accident, was also there to greet me but his wife Linda had taken the bus to Halls Creek to start her job.
We went shopping and investigated the classy shopping mall. Capsicums were $1.45 each; what a rip off! With fresh buns and salad, we moved to the river and had lunch. I rang the local radio stations and bought a desert park pass, which we needed to cross the Simpson Desert, from the Shell garage.
After finishing our shopping, we drove to John’s cousins’ home. Rod and Margaret greeted us with cups of tea and home-made beer.
August 18th. Alice Springs.
The first part of the morning was taken up with odd jobs, cleaning up, and washing. Ron Marks, a friend of Rod’s, came round and adjusted the steering arms and bearings. Although the vehicle had performed better since Halls Creek, it was far from perfect. After John took it for a test drive, he said it was a lot better.
Whilst I was being interviewed by a reporter from ‘The Advocate’ for 2 hours, John managed to change the engine oil and spill it all over the driveway. The interviewer couldn’t stop laughing when I told her that I had sold heaps of magazines in the desert along the Canning Stock Route.
August 19th Sunday. Alice Springs.
It was another day of cleaning and washing the car, shopping and a little sight-seeing. Tim went to watch the end of a running marathon and only three people crossed the line after three and half hours. We visited the museum and art gallery. There was a huge circular mural on the wall, depicting the area around Alice Springs. It was very impressive.
That evening we were treated to a BBQ with real meat. We had eaten meat only about twice since we had left Perth. I downed 3 glasses of port.
August 20th. Alice Springs.
We packed the vehicle for a two day excursion around the Red Centre’s gorges. Although it wasn’t directly on our route we couldn’t miss the opportunity to see them. On the way out of town, Tim sold his car fridge for $50 as it had broken down on the Stock Route. We had managed okay without it, so it was only a small loss.
Out first stop on our sight-seeing tour was Simpson’s Gap, a dried-up river with a pool of water running through a small gap between a mountain range. A bus parked next to our vehicle and the driver who was curious about all the stickers on our car soon asked what we were doing. Consequently, he asked me if I could give his passengers a quick story. The passengers were very keen so I jumped on board and gave a speech. At the finish I told them that I had written a magazine on my Kimberley adventures and within two minutes I had sold 15 of them. With $150 in my pocket, I felt like staying there and doing the same to the next bus load of tourists.
We motored on to Twin Gums and then to Stanley Chasm where there was a $2 entry fee. The car park was full. It was a beautiful walk towards the chasm but it was dampened by the number of people searching for its beauty. The high cliffs of the narrow chasm rose vertically towards the sky. It was so narrow there was no sun reaching its base. This happens only for a brief time around midday. People waded into the water below the cliffs but very few walked through the chasm to the other side owing to the depth of water. We left the masses and walked back to the vehicle for lunch and an ice cream before taking off to the gorge in Ellery Big Hole Nature Park. Our next stop was Ormiston Gorge which treated us to a display of beautiful colours as we drove in. We checked out the information centre and the touch, feel and smell boxes which were to educate the city slickers about the bush. There was a large pool of water in the gorge. A huge rock wall in the distance was in half shadow, but where the sun was reflected on the cliffs, the rich ochre colours stood out. Tim continued his quest to clean up Australia by fishing out a beer can from the water. To his surprise though, a yabby popped its claw out of the can, so he instantly threw it back in the water again. The area was a great walking area but we didn’t have the time to explore so we moved on to Glen Helen Gorge. Once again it was crowded with tourists. However, the gorge was a picture of beauty. Pools at the base of the cliffs were mirror-like, reflecting cliffs above. Where the river cut through the range, a rock bar allowed a trickle of water to seep through and form a deep pool on the other side where several people were swimming. We left the gorge, heading into the sun, and reluctantly leaving behind unforgettable scenery. When the sun slipped below the range near the Gosse Bluff turn-off, we camped.
August 21st. Near Palm Valley.
Our camp ground was full of burrs; when we left it we made sure our shoes were clear of them. Our destination, Palm Valley was 21 kilometres from the main track. The road into it was fairly rough as it criss-crossed the Finke River, on sand, stone, rock – you name it, it had it. We stopped at a very stunning viewpoint where a rocky range had formed into a shape of an amphitheatre. Eventually we arrived at a car park after driving through Cycad Alley. We walked along the river which had tall palms lining the water course and the cliffs beside formed a giant fence. Rock bars separated crystal clear pools of water. It was a beautiful sight. As we were walking back towards the car, a large party of people came heading our way. Like ants they swarmed around us. We diverted slightly and ended up finding two girls skinny-dipping in an adjacent pool.
We had a painful drive out and joined a better track to Hermannsburg township where we bought fuel and some rice pudding. The vegies were awful so we didn’t touch them. We had lunch at an artists’ memorial park and then returned to Alice Springs to continue our trip.
August 22nd. Alice Springs.
I spent the first 3 hours of the morning trying to find a bike shop. I finally found the Penny Farthing on Elder Street where I replaced my chain, cluster and derailleur and bought a sheepskin seat cover to help reduce bruising and sweating. The bike ran exceptionally smoothly on the way home.
The local TV station, Imparja, wanted an interview before I left to cross the Simpson. I cycled around to their studio and nearly got knocked off my bike when a big women in a small car turned across my path.
John filled the vehicle with fuel, a total of $110. I called at the post office for the last time, to check for the box of magazines that had been lost. Finally at 4.40pm I called at the Flying Doctor Base before leaving town and cycling through The Gap. Once past the airport, I started travelling on a heavily corrugated track, heading towards the Simpson Desert. It was quiet but hot and as sweat trickled down my brow two roos jumped across my path. By the time I had cycled 37 kms, it was time to camp at the Ewaninga Rail Siding.
August 23rd. Ewaninga Rail Siding.
The track was laced with sand patches that slowed my progress. Within 4kms I had reached the Ewaninga Rock Carving site which had a walk trail that led us around to the various sights. The carvings were clearly chipped into large slabs of soft sandstone rocks overlooking a small claypan. This site was made a reserve in 1971. Some anthropologists believe the carvings may pre-date present day Aborigines and could be 50 000 years old.
Ewaninga Rock Carving.
The beauty of the country was heightened by Ooraminna Range and the rocky hills adjacent which were covered with everlasting daisies and desert oak trees. Dandelions and mixed purple, white and yellow flowers also carpeted the country around me. With so much colour it was hard to believe that I was getting close to the Simpson desert, but then the sandy track and sand ridges with desert oaks returned. It then felt as if I was back on the Canning. Soon after, I came across road closure signs that were in position for that afternoon to allow a car rally to pass through the area. I was hoping that it was not going to affect my progress as I didn’t want more delays.
The Hugh River Stock Route track led off to my right, heading to the Stewart Highway but I kept going through a gate to Maryvale Station. The scenery suddenly changed. There were rocky, stony hills, which were interspersed with stony plains. On one of the hills we had our lunch. I cycled up and down many small hills that afternoon until I passed the old abandoned Ghan railway line which I had been following and would continue to follow further into the interior. I had 5 gates to open before I reached Maryvale (with a slight headache) at 2.45pm.
Heading towards the Simpson Desert.
At Maryvale, I threw the bike on top of the roof so we could drive and detour to the Chambers Pillar, a spectacular sandstone formation that stands in the middle of nowhere on a relatively flat plain. We crossed the Hugh River and followed the Charlotte Range, keeping it on our left. With 12 kms to go we turned south and drove over the range to find sand ridges and a fence line which lead us to the Pillar. It was quite an amazing sight. The giant sandstone pillar was standing 50 metres high on a virtual flat plain. We walked around it, trying to find that perfect photo shot, its colours varying from each direction. The top half of the Pillar was ochre red, with the colour fading and changing to a white closer to its base. Although the main Pillar was the main focus of our visit, there were other peaks that were of interest. The Pillar was discovered in April 1860 by John McDouall Stuart during his first attempt to cross Australia. Chambers Pillar, named after James Chambers, one of Stuart’s South Australian sponsors, was used by early travellers as a landmark as they made their way from Charlotte Waters across the desert to Alice Springs.
We decided to camp under the shade of some desert oaks not too far from the pillar. It was a cold and windy night.
August 24th. Chambers Pillar.
John shouted us awake at 5.55am. It was still dark. The cold was bitter but that was no excuse to lie in. By the time we drove over the Charlotte Range, the sun was rising. It was 90 minute drive back to Maryvale.
I cycled through the Aboriginal settlement to shouts of, “You’ll never make it, it’s the Simpson desert that way”. I passed a Telecom truck, its occupants working on the telephone system. The rubbish tip was like all others, smelly and unsightly. I left the settlement and tried cycling along the sandy track. It was so soft I came to a halt over and over again, so walking and pushing the bike was my only option. At 9.00am we stopped for breakfast. The soft sand was ever-relenting and I was on and off my bike like a yo-yo. Ted from RAC tours passed me and bought a mag as did another family from Victoria. At the ruins near Alice Well, next to the Hugh River I was plagued with flies. This heritage site was discovered by Ross and Harvey as they explored the area in October 1870, looking for a suitable route for the Overland Telegraph Line. It soon became an important work depot during the construction of the line and a major watering place on the southern stock route. A police station was also built at Alice Well and served the area from 1911 to 1928.
The track was pretty corrugated and sandy.
With a million annoying flies hanging on to all parts of my body, I found it really tough to cycle and walk over several sand ridges which were very close together, just before Bundooma rail siding. I left the big water tank and ruins of Bundooma and was relieved to see the sand ridges had subsided. However the very soft track running parallel to the old railway line was agonising and the flies were just driving me crazy. My bird and animal sightings were increasing as the day went by. The birds had been singing most of the day and earlier I spotted a white feral donkey, stacks of rabbits and as I approached another ruin, a feral cat and rabbit ran across the track.
Most of the track at this stage was built on a raised levy and blooming with small daisies. Many old sleepers intermittently lined it in a haphazard fashion. When I reached the Depot Sandhills, the heat and terrain seemed to have thrown about everything it could at me. I was tired but I couldn’t ease up as my day’s progress had been too slow. My wheel marks snaked continually from one side of the track to the other, as I searched for the harder ground. Unfortunately there was no solid ground so occasionally, when my strength faded, I walked. A Milo and biscuit stop further up the track boosted my energy level but it didn’t improve the track condition. Just before darkness arrived, two cows and a bull stood on the track. They were in no mood to move, so I decided to go bush and walk around them. When darkness fell, I had no chance of cycling even if I had the energy. It was too sandy and dark so I walked into camp, reaching it at 7.10pm. It wasn’t until 11.15pm, after washing, eating and writing a letter, that I got to bed.
The old railway track.
August 25th. Near Colson Pinnacle.
I struggled across another section of soft track before the conditions improved. Colson Pinnacle and Mt Rumbalara came into view over to my east. It was a stunning sight for this part of the world but unfortunately the track to it was on private property so I made no attempt to pursue it. The track became sandy once more as I closed in on the abandoned Rumbalara rail siding. Two stop signs either side of the track looked well out of place here in the wilderness, where vehicles were non-existent and trains had not been seen since 1982. The area was quite lush with plentiful bushes but with different shades of green. Carpets of flowers intermingled around the bushes and along the track. I cycled along part of the track until I reached a wash house with showers, and foundations of another building beside it. An old 44 gallon drum, still intact, heated the water. The railway track at this point, as in many other places, was torn up with sleepers piled in small heaps. I left John and Tim to explore the area while I pedalled off. However I could only travel at snail’s pace as the track became sandy and littered with ultra-soft sand holes that made cycling virtually impossible.
Crossing the railway track.
My calf muscles were like rock and pumped up as I desperately pushed down on the peddles to break through the sand holes. Eventually I reached the last sand dune before the Finke River. The ground was so soft that I had a feeling that my chain would snap at any moment. When momentum was lost, I had no choice but to dismount. I crossed the river overflow section by foot and then tried to ride across the wide Finke, but within metres from the bank, the bike sank in the soft sand and halted. I was really surprised by the width of the river; it must have been 60-80 metres wide. There wasn’t a skerrick of water to be seen anywhere, just waves of sand in both directions.
The Finke was discovered by Stuart in 1860 and named after his sponsor, William Finke. It is the main river in central Australia, running almost 700 kms from the MacDonnell Ranges. The Finke is one of those rivers that doesn’t flow into the sea. Although most rivers in the centre drain into a lake or a salt lake, the Finke drains and soaks into the sand of the Simpson Desert. Geologically, it is claimed to be one of the world’s most ancient rivers.
I straddled my bike again, but within a few metres the soft sand halted my progress. I pushed until I found a firmer spot and then jumped on once more to struggle a few more metres before my wheels no longer turned. I pushed and pushed again until I’d crossed the river bed to where Tim and John were waiting. Once back on track I made my way towards the Finke Township. Tim had his video camera out taking footage of me as I struggled over the severely sandy corrugations, working extremely hard, my back wheel spinning and my front wheel snaking as I lost momentum. The last two days were probably the hardest two days that I had encountered so far, apart from the struggle I’d had in my kayak against gale force winds on my first leg, but then it wasn’t so hot.
Trying to cross the Finke River.
Too hard to cycle.
A football oval came into view and for some reason it was flooded with water. The Finke township was pretty basic with a garage and a telephone that didn’t work. I paused no longer than ten minutes, as there was nothing there to keep me. The township was established when the narrow gauge railway was extended from Oodnadatta to Alice Springs in 1929. As the river often flooded and continually caused damaged to the railway bridge over the river, the community at Finke became important for the railways ongoing repairs. In 1980, the railway line was replaced by a standard gauge line situated 150 kms to the west, so the Finke rail facilities became redundant. It was at this point that the next part of my journey would move away from the old railway line. Leaving town, I stopped at a stockyard full of horses and two camels. Some local Aboriginal kids were having fun riding the horses up and down bareback.
It was hard to believe the state of the road; it had improved dramatically. After negotiating Goyder Creek, we had lunch and continued my journey, stopping briefly at the remote Boggy Swamp Grave before climbing a few hills that led to New Crown Station. A light aircraft was taking off in a huge cloud of dust when I arrived.
The fantastic road once again deteriorated. Two wedge-tailed eagles perching in a tree took to flight, circling the area until I had gone. Two healthy camels that stood near the track found it hard to flee as they were hemmed in by a semi-circle of thick bushes. Rain started to fall, making the dirt road slippery. As I sweltered in the afternoon heat, the rain only made cycling worse. By darkness, and in the rain, I had reached a lovely camp site near the ruins of Charlotte Waters, having cycled 100 kms.
August 26th Sunday Charlotte Waters.
I looked over an old mill close to our camp before riding on to Charlotte Water’s ruins 1 km further on. The locals from New Crown Station, who were on their way to a mustering camp stopped for a talk. The landscape became very barren, like a scene from planet Mars. Just after a stock yard and water mill on my right, a sign saying ‘South Australia’, which had been painted and donated by the Oodnadatta Pink Roadhouse, stood out like a sore thumb against the barren landscape.
My next stop was at the abandoned Abminga rail siding. The siding had a station building with rooms, a mess and kitchen. Old foundations, steel stilts, a water tank, stockyards and hoppers were also in the vicinity. Rabbits had taken over the area, as they have in all other parts of this region.
I cut across to the Blood Creek Bore road which looked as if it had never been maintained. The surface was stony but I made better progress than on the sand and found a lizard that wasn’t in the best of health on the track. I then came across a couple, Mike and Swell, who were having lunch under the shade of a tree. They looked fit and tanned. Swell, who was very beautiful, even though she’d spent weeks out in the scrub, spent most of her time lifting weights. In the back of their car she had a pair of dumbbells to help keep her trim while away from Melbourne. I wanted to stay and admire but instead I sold them a magazine and moved on towards a sandy plain. As I crossed a sandy creek bed, hundreds of squawking white cockatoos flew overhead and gathered in the nearby trees. I cruised on, interested in reading the plant information signs that were erected along the track.
Barren hills stood on the horizon and when I reached them the boys were there ready to hand me a milo. They were getting to know my every need. I rode through a valley fenced in by the rolling barren hills on a stony track that was very hard on my backside. Although riding was still painful, luckily the blistering heat had eased leaving me with a cooler and less sweaty backside although my hands tingled as they vibrated on the handle bars.
I crossed Spring Creek which was beautiful and desolate and encrusted with salt huge black clouds streamed across the sky towards me; they looked violent but magnificent beyond the barren hills. Patches of lush vegetation now dotted the country, the result of the spring waters in the area. I closed in on the camp site at Dalhousie Springs. At the top of a rise I could see the camp in the distance. At that point the back sprockets on my bike came loose and I lost all traction, but I was able to coast down the hill towards the camp site. I couldn’t believe my eyes; there were dozens of four-wheel drives parked in the area. As I entered the camp ground, about fifty people stood there clapping their hands. They were giving me a standing ovation. It was like a royal welcome. People flocked around to congratulate me. They asked questions that I didn’t have time to answer before the next person butted in. They wished me luck and many bought a magazine and asked me to sign it. I hadn’t experienced such enthusiasm and excitement from a crowd before. Sometime later, the crowd settled down and left me to relax. As the sun dropped below the horizon, mosquitoes swarmed our camp. To escape the swarm we retreated to the beautiful hot water lake of Dalhousie Springs. The relaxing thermal spring water was just what my body needed after such a long, harrowing ordeal.
Swimming in the hot Dalhousie Springs. Tim & John on the right.
I swam out into the centre of the large pool and the water temperature changed as my legs wriggled to keep afloat in this sometimes deep pool. My body was so heavy that I felt I could sink after such a large tea. I explored the shallow end of the pool to find it so muddy that my feet sank deep down. I focused on the night sky; the stars shone so brightly it was like the lights of a big city. Occasionally clouds moving across the sky blocked out the light, throwing our pool into darkness momentarily. The heat of the water besieged me and my whole body felt relaxed and soft, but the night air chilled it whenever I stood up in the shallows.
August 27th. Dalhousie Springs.
It was still dark when we took our early morning dip in the springs. It was also my 100th day since leaving Augusta. Steam was rising from the hot water like a scene from an eerie horror movie and I had thoughts of something creeping under the water ready to grab my legs. Only our heads appeared above the water as we tried to keep as warm as possible on this bitterly cold morning. I crept to different sections of the pool to find the varying water temperatures, the hotter the better. As the light dawned, the sun rose, filtering its beams of light through the trees like the beams of a space ship enticing us towards the sky. It was one of those magical moments that would be hard to forget.
Our camp was on a large graded area. Nearly every camper had a fire place; in fact the camp was littered with them. There were now very few clouds in the sky, making it one of those perfect mornings. I met Debbie Lawrence from South Australia, who had canoed on the Murray and Amazon rivers in 1988. She was part of the large 39 four wheel drive RAC convoy. I sold another six magazines, thanks to a bloke who continually spread the word to other campers of how good it was. I then started my washing, but it was impossible to work with the people flocking around. Peace prevailed when the convoy left.
Camped at Dalhousie Springs.
John packed the bearings on my bike wheels while I washed my hair, trimmed my beard, packed my bike away and then we checked out the area with Kevin Parks, the part time ranger. We found old machinery, date palms and bubbling springs with water temperature around 30-40 degrees centigrade; too hot to put your hand in.
The Ranger showing us around.
ACROSS THE SIMPSON
After lunch, I started my trek by foot across the Simpson. It had always been one of my dreams. I walked on, passing the airstrip, piles of beer cans and mounds of lush vegetation created by isolated springs.
I moved on, leaving the lush pockets of vegetation and breakaway country and headed towards a huge flat gibber plain. The plain was littered with stones as far as the eye could see. Bull-dust sections occasionally intersected the track. When I reached a black soil flood plain, three donkeys looked on, after which a very thin female dingo waited for me to get closer, and then walked around me. It stopped again, letting me get close. It whined as I passed. I kept walking and it followed me rather closely, stopping to scratch now and then. The sun was setting over the hills of Dalhousie Springs. Streaks of red, similar to the Japanese flag, bled from the sun in the western sky. Dark clouds hovered in the southern sky slowly heading towards me. The vast plain was so empty and barren it was hard to believe that anything could live out here. Even the hills in the distance looked barren. The walking on the flood plain was much easier than on the rocky gibber plain. The dingo was still with me and another appeared in front but it soon jumped and ran away. It then became too dark to see any dingoes so I assumed that I was now walking alone.
In the far distance I could see the light of my support vehicle and as it got closer, I met Tim. The camp was on some soft, barren soil. Tim gave me a leg massage, the first since leaving the Canning Stock Route.
August 28th. Gibber Plain. Edge of the Simpson Desert.
It had been a cool and windy night which caused my tent to flap in fits. My walk started across a flood plain with little vegetation. Eventually I came close to a small hill. Flood debris encircled the hill several metres up from the road. It must have been one hell of a flood. I rounded the next bend to see hills that looked as if they had come from the surface of the moon. They were a mixture of powdery, white, reddish soil; fairly barren with one hill shaped like a hump and another fairly flat. A few spots of rain dropped as I reached a 500 metre line of bushes with purple fan flowers and very green stems. Lots of samphire plants had also taken hold. Plants became more abundant, including a white flower with a bigger centre petal. Wrens chattered away like sewing machines, a baby rabbit fled from under a bush and ravens squawked as I passed several heaps of white, bleached bones. There was life and death all in the same area. I followed camel footprints towards some hills that were closing in. After lunch I walked across a few very small sand ridges that were riddled with rabbit holes and dingo turds and found about 40 beer bottles but there were too many for me to carry.
On my last 10 kms to Purni Bore, the sand ridges were very small and close. A dingo followed me but disappeared when a police vehicle stopped and asked what I was doing. I arrived at the Purni Bore at 4.50pm to the screeching sound of hundreds of galahs. The bore pipe flowed continuously with hot steaming water. It flooded the area and gave life to the desert. Acres of lush vegetation had been created by the new stream of water. There are thousands of these artesian bores around central Australia and Queensland and most continuously have a flow of water running out into the desert region. Unfortunately the water is wasted and the bores need to be capped. I bathed my tired body in the smaller of the two pools, as the bigger one next to it was far too hot. Drops of rain fell briefly, enough for us to feel threatened by rain and to erect the awning and for me to put my tent up.
August 29th. Purni Bore.
It rained in the night and left light fog drifting around the hot pools. Steam was rising from the water in a continuous cloud. It was a perfect morning fresh from the rain and cool from the night.
I spoke to the police before heading off. Along the track four small beetles were attempting to move some camel dung. They were lined up as a team and were slowly moving the dung until one did a backflip and got trampled on by the others. Another team of three was close by, pushing another piece of dirt which had two beetles riding on top.
Camped at Purni Bore.
The rain had made the clay areas of the track very tacky. The clay stuck to my shoes and began to build up until they were several centimetres thick and I felt as if I was walking on stilts. Sand dunes became more frequent and beer bottles also increased. In 4 kms I had collected 22, then another 49 on my next 6km stretch. At this rate they were becoming impossible to carry, so at my next energy intake stop, I dug a big hole and buried them. Close by there was a hawk’s nest perched in a nearby tree. I climbed it and saw two speckled brown eggs. Soon after, the police truck stopped and I thought they were going to ask why I climbed the tree but they only stopped for another talk. Earlier they had bought a magazine from John and were impressed with the expeditions I had done.
At lunch, the cloud cover moved away allowing the heat to build up. I had collected 119 bottles by then so we had to dig another burial site. Just beyond a carcass of a dead dingo, the track forked. The firm Rig road turned to the right, but our track, the sandy French Track, continued in a straight line. The French Track turned sandy and the sand dunes increased; up one, down one, up one, down one. Rabbit holes were very noticeable, as were the newly-formed flowers that had bloomed from the recent rains. To the south, the sky was black and claps of thunder vibrated the ground. The change of scenery encouraged me to alter my pace to a jog and at 5pm I stopped for a Milo as the rain clouds closed in. Tim and John soon moved away to search for a camp site 8 kms further on. I ran faster when I noticed rain heading in my direction and black clouds circling overhead. Within minutes, the clouds dumped rain spasmodically and the temperature soon plummeted but I reached camp before the best of the wet developed.
The desert was blooming, so different from what I expected.
I quickly erected my tent as a thunder and lightning show took to the skies. The heavens then opened up, leaving us to shelter under our tarp, have tea, write and watch the spectacular storm.
It stopped raining about 10.30pm. It had been a big day for bottle collecting. I had scooped up 205 bottles and cans, which was a record for one day.
August 30th. Simpson Desert.
When the thundering stopped in the night, dingoes howled. It was an eerie sound. I awoke in the early morning and checked my pulse rate. It was 56 beats p/m. Before leaving the tent, I did 25 press ups. I was thinking about my kayak trip to Cape York; it was getting closer and I had lost much of my upper body fitness. I crawled out of the tent and found all our gear that was left out was wet.
As I walked away from our camp, dingoes not too far distant started howling again. It seemed strange to hear the dingoes howling in the day time. Small footprints firmly embedded in the damp sand showed a tussle between a dingo and a rabbit, which had lost some fur. The tussle must have turned into disaster as a track of fur led into the scrub. The high cane grass lining the track was a perfect hide-out for the rabbits when they were not near their holes, but it hadn’t helped this one.
Sandwiched between patches of vegetation and spinifex were bunches of white round flowers with yellow centres. I spotted beautiful birds, Crimson Chats, dotting around the bushes. It was hard to mistake this colourful bird; red head and under body, white throat and greyish wings. Further on Tim had found a lizard sleeping in a hole. By 10.35am I passed Coulson track, which joined from the north. Beyond it I found vines ladened with red berries and pools of water in hollows of the track from the recent rain.
Light rain sprinkled just after lunch and it became heavier as I walked on, but I was in deep thought and hardly noticed. I was having a dream that excited me. I worked out a master plan in my mind. I would buy a property somewhere in the hills near Perth and develop an educational centre. In this centre I would house a large picture plan of Australia. Each section would have photos that I had taken and murals on the walls depicting the different areas. It would also be an educational display. Outside the centre there would be adventure activities, underground caving system, rock faces, a small lake, the lot. It seemed so real that I felt eager to get home and develop the site. But where would I get the money from?
The rain moved more south than west and kept me rather cool. It didn’t deter the wildlife though; dingoes were still regular visitors, and the dead rabbits attracted hawks and ravens. The cold weather encouraged me to drink Milo at my drink spots instead of water. By the end of my day’s walk it was still raining, I had collected 63 cans and was following fresh tracks of a dingo that seemed to be following the vehicle to camp.
August 31st. Simpson Desert.
Dingoes continued to howl in the night. The clouds had cleared but a heavy dew had settled leaving dampness on everything. I paid a visit to the toilet and while I was squatting a dingo hung around. It was in a playful mood, jumping up and down as if it wanted me to play. At the time I was in no position to do so. It also did a sort of bark, which surprised me somewhat as I didn’t think that dingoes barked.
I returned to camp to listen to the local weather before moving off below a clear, sunny sky. The news about Kuwait and the Iraqi war was depressing. When I moved away from camp a dingo also strutted behind me for a while. The sight of 25 budgies had me wondering if the desert was ever going to become devoid of birds and animals. Was this really a desert? Five hawks circled overhead to the south where most likely something was dead. For some reason, only moments later, a pink galah swooped down towards me landing only a few feet away.
Yellow pea flower bushes standing to a height of 1 metre brightened up the desert. I walked through a valley of trees that were present only in this one area. Hawks had built several nests in these trees. Once again there was no traffic to disturb me from crossing about 160 sand ridges, although I had a busy day collecting 90 cans.
Because it was the last official day of winter, we celebrated with cake and custard, and camped close to the first lake of our journey.
September 1st. Simpson Desert.
Our camp on the top of a sand ridge gave us extensive views of a lake. We radioed RFD in Augusta to find out about the track conditions into the desert areas. We hadn’t seen anyone for days so we wondered if the tracks ahead had been closed. We heard on the news that someone had driven a tractor from Adelaide to Birdsville in aid of the Flying Doctor, but the floods had cut off its route back. We also listened to a bloke ringing his girlfriend, wife or daughter, from Dalhousie Springs, on the radio. He kept laughing and thought the radio phone was radical. He sounded stoned.
The Flying Doctor Radio was used to contact the outside world.
Along the track, a yellow chat thought I threatened it, so it gave me a fine pretend display of injury. It ran in front of me flapping its wing and pretending to be injured. It finally moved off the track and let me pass. I then spotted six camels crossing a salt lake ahead but they soon moved away, widening the gap between us. The lake was wet but firm and presented no problem for the vehicle. John and Tim passed me on the lake and to my surprise a dingo was chasing the vehicle across it.
I soon passed a T junction and Lindsay’s plaque. Several high gidgee trees with limestone rocks scattered around them changed the beauty of the unremitting desert scene. Then a vehicle approached. Although I didn’t want to see any, I had been wondering where all the vehicles had got to. The two blokes inside had been bogged on a salt lake all night. They had slept in their car and they had managed to winch themselves out that morning. They gave John and me an apple and orange. They were heading to the Birdsville races. They warned me of a large convoy behind which was headed my way and bought a Kimberley magazine and motored away. Every 5-6 kilometres they had scribed in the sand, ‘Go Terry’. I had to smile every time I spotted it.
Tall grasses, flowers and sand dunes that stretched for ever.
I wanted to get on the lake before the convoy passed, but just after lunch I spotted vehicles descending the sand ridge in the valley behind me. Before catching up, they stopped for lunch allowing me the freedom to walk across the first of the two lakes in peace. I left the white salt and entered the sand ridges again but before reaching the second lake the convoy, led by Ian, caught up. I gave him the beer cans I had picked up in exchange for two barley sugar sweets. The vehicles passed one by one. Most shouted words of encouragement while others stopped to have a chat. I gave more rubbish away and then met up with a talkative man with a hip replacement. He had bought one of my magazines at Dalhousie Springs several days earlier and his wife had read much of it. She was fascinated with the part in the magazine when I burnt down the farmyard at seven years of age and when I got kicked out of my Aunty’s house at 16 years old. As the last vehicle passed me I was on top of the last sand ridge before the lake. Thirty nine vehicles had driven by, slowing my progress a little. I took a shot of the convoy heading across the lake. There were 35 vehicles paying $460 per vehicle and $160 per person. It took 1 hour 55 minutes for the whole convoy to pass, spread over a distance of 15 kms.
The RACV convoy heads my way.
I crossed more lakes and then returned to the sand ridges. I noticed a dingo heading towards me as I climbed to the top of a dune and I crouched down to surprise it, but at the same moment it spotted a rabbit and took-off rapidly after it. There were still hundreds of rabbits in this area.
The empty salt-laden lakes were impressive and at the height of the sand ridges I could see nothing but the same sort of vegetation in the vast expanse before me. Before crossing another lake, I spotted two more dingoes on the dunes. I looked at two beer cans which had been ravished by dingoes. The aluminium cans had been crushed by the force of the dingoes jaws and teeth marks had pierced them in several places. The dingoes had ripped many of the cans apart so they could get to the last dregs of beer. I felt sad at the sight. By the end of the day, I had collected 99 cans and bottles.
Crossing a salt lake.
I crossed the lake before Poeppel Corner just as the light was fading. It was 6.30pm South Australian time by the time we reached the Poeppel Corner pillar and signed the book. Apart from some trees, the area was quite bare and eroded in many places. This is where the state of Northern Territory meets Queensland and South Australia. Poeppel Corner is about 174 km west of Birdsville, in the middle of the Simpson Desert.
Tim befriended a spider and was kept amused by feeding it innocent insects. The moon was getting brighter as it was getting closer to my favourite time of the month, full moon.
Poeppel Corner is where the state of Northern Territory meets Queensland and South Australia.
September 2nd Sunday. Poeppel Corner. Simpson Desert.
Our camp overlooked the lake. Although we were in the middle of nowhere, the area was eroded and severely scarred. The pristine environment had been ruined by rabbits. To make us feel at home, ‘Australia All Over’ was on the airways. I listened as I ate my breakfast and took a few photos before leaving. A kingfisher looked on as I walked away. Further down the track, I caught up with the tail-end vehicles of the RACV convoy. The convoy mechanic was looking over a vehicle that was having problems. Just before John and Tim caught up, I found some young budgies in a tree.
A salt lake.
The next section of track snaked around so John who decided to walk with me and I decided to take a short cut across the dunes to cut off some distance. It took us 50 minutes to join the track again and John returned to the driver’s seat when we caught up with Tim. I then walked ahead and started crossing another long lake. Deep wheel ruts full of water snaked across the lake where several vehicles had been bogged trying to cross it. However, the fresh wheel tracks were dry and firm and at times zig-zagged away from the deep, boggy ruts. The salt-encrusted lake was long and sandwiched between two sand ridges. In the centre of the lake, I felt as if I was the middle of some distant barren planet. It was quite intriguing, quite mysterious, and very fulfilling to be there alone. Life was non-existent on the ground, but just as I thought that I was the only living thing on earth, a huge wedged-tail eagle circled closely overhead and then the roar of an engine in the distance broke my peace. When the vehicle approached, it looked like a white tank with a gunner on top. As it neared, I could see Tim sitting on top of the roof rack with video camera in hand. I stepped aside, walking well away from the track to capture my own photo of the vehicle passing. The roar was certainly that of a diesel engine. There was nothing fancy or quiet about my vehicle, it was a real work horse. Leaving the lake, I entered the state of Queensland.
My vehicle crossing a salt lake.
Two cars approached on their way from the races in Birdsville. Birdsville is not much more than a dozen houses and a pub but on race day it swells to several thousand. Apparently everyone had enjoyed a good time, lots of drink etc, etc. Dick Smith and many other rich people had flown in for the races. We had missed them by a couple of days. Phil and Dave, in another vehicle, arrived later. To pass, John pulled off the track onto a sand embankment. As John moved forward, the slope caused our vehicle to lean over and the roof racks of both vehicles just about touched. As he moved further forward, the car nearly toppled over but John stopped just in time. It balanced delicately, and only after we had dug the sand from under the left wheels did he dare to move. John then reversed off the slope to avoid a roll-over.
Over the next sand ridge we came across a heap of rubbish – boxes, gas bottles, a lazy boy, and clothes. John and Tim dug a large hole and buried it all. I picked up 30 cans for the day.
On the news that evening we were informed that Robert Holmes-A-Court, one of Australia’s richest men, had died.
September 3rd. Simpson Desert in Queensland.
Tim managed to get a flat tyre moments after taking off. I met a South Australian couple who had previously been a sweep vehicle for the Simpson Cycle Classic, an organised cycle race across part of the desert. He hadn’t been impressed with the organisation and kept going on.
Beyond the Simpson Desert National Park, the scenery changed. Between the dunes it became swampier and trees were bigger. John baked a cake that night but it turned out to be a burnt offering. Not one of his best attempts! I had collected 94 cans and bottles and continued my now daily routine of doing 30 press ups. Having spent the last two months on foot and bike, I needed to get my upper body fitter for my kayak trip along the Queensland Coast.
September 4th. Near Eye Creek.
I now had 70 kilometres to go before reaching Birdsville so I was keen to leave early to ensure that I arrived that night. It wasn’t easy to rise at 4.30am in the dark of a cool morning. I was off by 5.00am, my vision aided by the reflection of the bright moon. Rain water had collected in the wheel ruts between the sand ridges so it was hard not to get my feet wet. I reached Eye Creek which was sandwiched between two sand ridges. The water from this creek flowed into Australia’s great salt lake, Lake Eyre. As I skirted a billabong at 6.05am, the moon disappeared, leaving a dark void before the morning light crept in.
Down one sand dune – up the next.
With the morning light came the chattering of the birds and life ready to explode. A lone eagle flew swiftly across the sky and through the trees to escape the harassment of ravens in close pursuit. On the ground, a flock of ibis stabbed the earth for food, oblivious to my passing and the commotion happening in the sky.
I had walked 18km before Tim and John caught up and we had breakfast. The vehicle was lathered with mud and water from the bog holes that they had driven through. Our next challenge was just ahead, the high, long, red, Big Red sand ridge. Big Red is the highest sand ridge along our route, and the track up and over it is a challenge for the most powerful four-wheel drive. Patches of spinifex and bushes dotted the slopes of Big Red. It’s actually called Nappanerica Dune but has been dubbed Big Red. It stands 40 metres high and has a straight track running to its summit, with the sand becoming softer and softer closer to the top. I stood well behind the vehicle and focused my camera on it and the dune. Through my lens, the vehicle was dwarfed by the huge sand dune. I walked on, passed the vehicle and started climbing the soft sand. As my leg muscles bulged, my breathing grew more laboured and sweat peeled off my brow. Near the top, the bushes ceased, leaving a red, wavy sea of sand stretching in the far distance.
We are in the Simpson Desert but water lay between several sand dunes.
I looked on as I saw John reverse the vehicle to get a long run up. A cloud of smoke squeezed from the exhaust as John revved the machine moments before he took off at speed. As the wheels hit the soft sand, the engine began to die, until John quickly changed a gear and brought the revs back up again. The engine screech was short-lived as the soft sand created a wave effect in front of the tyres and finally tamed the car. There was a clonk from the prop shaft as the vehicle came to a complete stop, and stalled. John had no chance of making the top – the vehicle was just too heavy, too underpowered, and the dune was just too big. John reversed to the base and had another go, hoping the wheel ruts that he had just made had firmed the sand and would allow the vehicle to go further. It did, but it still failed. John reversed yet again and, defeated by the steepness, took a less difficult route slightly south.
For a few minutes I spent time lazily exploring the dune, getting images and views of the patterns in the sand. I then descended the more meandering track on the eastern side and continued my walk on the flat plain. I kept walking and after 5kms, John and Tim caught up and told me that it would have been quicker to get to Birdsville by taking the turn that I had passed a few kilometres back.
The run-up to the Big Red sand dune.
On top of Big Red.
After lunch, I retraced my steps to the turn off. Having walked 4kms more than I needed, I was keen to make up the time. The stock yards a short distance away from the turn off were a reminder of the first signs of civilisation. I moved past it, breaking out into a trot across a stony plain. After 20 kilometres, the boys came into view with a cup of hot Milo ready for me. They then drove off to Birdsville, leaving me to run the last 14 kilometres. The track was rock hard and my calf muscles were pumped up from the 60 kilometres that I had done so far that day. With yet another leg about to be completed, I was on another high.
I had asked the guys to be in the Birdsville pub at exactly 6pm with a beer ready for me on the bar. As I ran, I thought about the moment that I would enter the pub, walk to the bar and take a swig a beer from the glass and say to the blokes in the pub, “Oh I have just run across the Simpson Desert”. A frequent check on my watch encouraged me to keep the pressure up, to push my body harder so as to ensure that I would get there on time. My concentration was focused on the end, the barren landscape around me yielding nothing inspiring for me to look at.
In the distance I could see buildings rising out of the plain. My calf muscles were burning but the town was like a magnet driving me to run faster so as to arrive at the pub a little before my dead-line. I hit the tarmac and minutes after, arrived at the pub. Tim and John were not waiting in the pub, which shattered my enthusiasm and excitement. I became quite angry and severely disappointed. I had been thinking about this moment all day and in one moment my aspirations were shot to pieces. Why were they not here? I was thirsty, but now had no ambition to enter the pub alone. Was all the pain worth it? I thought. I had built up the finish of this leg so much that the 6pm entry into the pub became so important for me to achieve. I walked sadly from the pub along the deserted road towards the caravan park. John and Tim had just enjoyed a hot shower and were going about their business. They had no idea how important it was for them to be at the pub and how disappointed I felt. My anger towards them was high, but I knew nothing would be gained in carrying it on throughout the rest of the day so I said nothing.
I walked over to the Post Office and, although it was closed on Tuesdays and it was after 6pm, I knocked on the Post Mistress’s house door and she welcomed me and gave me some books and a letter. But there were no bike parts that I had been waiting for, from Alice Springs. Although Alice Springs was only 600 kms away as the crow flies across the desert, the post would have to go several thousand kilometres, probably via Adelaide to get there. I returned to the caravan park to have a hot shower before we eventually made our way to the pub for an $8 chicken, salad and chips with a garlic roll. It was excellent value and with a couple of beers in my belly, I began to cheer up again.
TO COOKTOWN then Cape York.
September 5th. Birdsville.
It was one of those busy mornings; washing, fixing and packing grease into the bike bearings, ringing my sponsors and radio stations and preparing for my next leg north while John and Tim washed the car in hot water.
Birdsville is in Queensland, only a few kilometres from the South Australian border and just over 100 kilometres from the Northern Territory border, on the Diamantina River. It is situated on a huge underground water supply and when the water comes to the surface it is boiling hot. Lush vegetation grows around the steaming uncapped bores that are around the area. Birdsville also holds an annual race day which just happened to be during the weekend before we arrived. The races attract people from far afield. Many come by plane. These races are an opportunity for people to let their hair down or just get drunk.
Around town, I noticed several introduced foreign birds, especially sparrows. Luckily for Western Australia the deserts play an important part in keeping out foreign birds that have inundated the eastern states. Foreign birds seen entering W.A. are hunted down and shot. This policy has kept W.A. relatively free of introduced species.
By 2pm I was next to the Birdsville pub ready to start my cycle north. Here I met Jock, a journalist writing an article for National Geographic. We talked for about an hour or so, before he and his friend Midford took photos. By the time I had bought an ice cream at the shop and was ready to leave, it was 4.20pm. It took only moments to pass through the town and enter the harsh, sparse stony desert. Although it was drawing towards evening, the atmosphere was still warm. Once again, the country before me was vast. I pedalled on with renewed energy from my short break. Several kilometres from town, government vehicle inspectors stopped me. Jokingly, they insisted I present my bike for inspection. We left them and I cycled on for 42kms before treating myself to a couple of Snicker bars given to me by Midford and Jock who had stashed a box of thirty-six in our vehicle. Jock also gave us some vegetables.
September 6th. North of Birdsville.
The full moon drifted across the night sky once more. It was the time of month that I loved and always felt good about. At full moon I always wanted to be somewhere special and Birdsville happened to be that place this month.
Only three cars hurried by that morning. The track was good but I pushed into a head wind. At lunch time flies in their hundreds pestered me so I was eager to get back on my bike. As I passed over Eye Creek, John was taking a dip in the brown water. I arrived there at the same time as Andy, a guy from near Lincoln, England, pulled up on his motorbike. He was pleased to meet someone from the same county where he was born. At my next stop I pigged out on more Snickers bars. John had to share them out equally because Tim had taken a fancy to them more frequently than we did. I crossed Georgina Creek, an extension of Eye Creek, before arriving in the small town of Bedourie. Our camp oven was called a Bedourie. Maybe it had been invented here. We had been cooking bread and damper in it since leaving Perth. I arrived outside the local pub at 5.40pm, thirsty, a little tired and ready to visit inside and have a beer. Before leaving, I made several phone calls but I wasn’t able to get through to Jenny. Our camp just outside the town was full of burrs which stuck to everything that came in contact with them. I had travelled 150kms on the dirt track.
John and Tim having a dip in Eye Creek.
September 7th. Bedourie.
It took me ages to clean my ground sheet of burrs. When I cycled through the town, there were several blokes already drinking at the pub. What a way to have breakfast!
The soft and rocky track brought the pain back to cycling. Nine bush turkeys scattered before me, flying into the dry country. I cycled 60kms before having lunch in the shade of a small bush. Further on, passing the Gorgina Channels, I had a Milo and Snickers stop while Tim and John went for a swim. The steep, sandy-sided wide channel was lined with large trees with water in it that was so incredibly brown I could imagine them coming out of the water dirtier than they went in. That didn’t put off the boys though, as it was the best way to cool down. I left them to soak and moved off, passing several other channels. By nightfall I had cycled 145kms on dirt road and passed only ten cars.
September 8th. South of Boulia.
A large goanna skirted across the black soil track which was broken up in several places but luckily I had only 60 kms to go before reaching the bitumen. The rubbish tip and then the golf course were the first signs to indicate the town of Boulia was nearing. The town had a tidy, wide main street with very neat buildings, freshly painted. I checked out the store and rang Jenny. My trip had been going so smoothly that I had the yearning to extend my trip and include Tasmania. The only problem with this change of plans meant it would extend my time away. Instead of 8 months it would increase to 12 months, and instead of 19,000 kilometres it would be 24,000kms. I was eager to change my plans but I needed Jenny to agree so when I rang, I asked her. It was really unfair of me to put her on the spot but I was so much on a high with everything going so well, I just needed to know. Although she reluctantly said yes, I knew that she hadn’t thought through the consequences so I expected some resistance later on.
We had lunch in the middle of the wide street. I changed bikes and slipped out of town, making good progress on the bitumen road. A man who had bought a Kimberley mag from the boys stopped and asked me to sign it. It was for his son Robert. He said that God was with him as he had survived a severe heart attack. Before leaving he preached to me a little and said that God was with me also. The road was full of livestock, bulls and cattle. They roamed it freely but the freedom had taken its toll as several carcasses were splattered on the road. This included many roos and sheep. By the time I finished for the day I had covered 192 kms, 58 on the dirt, 134 on bitumen.
Stew for dinner with Tim.
September 9th Sunday. Near Dajarra.
My wheels were turning by 7am on a lonely road heading towards Dajarra where I phoned ‘Australia all Over’. The line was engaged so I moved on, passing a hitch-hiker who was later picked up by Tim and John. By lunch time the hitch hiker had got a lift with another car after realising that our progress was pretty slow. With the sun beating down, I was feeling a bit tired in the head.
A car stopped close to me and I thought it was going to run me down, but it was Kevin, the man who had stopped the previous day. He carried on and later passed me again, heading towards Mt Isa. Within reach of the town he returned, this time with his family, his wife and sons, Robert and Samuel. He wanted a group photograph with me and his family. He insisted that I follow him into town to the Caravan Park so I didn’t get lost. Again we said our goodbyes.
I showered before we adjourned to the pub for a counter meal – T-bone steak and salad for $8.00, with cheese cake and ice cream ($2.50) for sweets.
September 10th. Mt Isa.
As I was doing my early morning washing, Kevin visited yet again. I filled the day by visiting the local paper, radio, TV stations. I had an ABC radio interview and the paper did a story. A hairdresser, Christine, gave me a haircut and charged me only $5.00. Pretty cheap I thought. The rest of the day was spent shopping and sending seven letters off to W.A.
Mt Isa is the most important industrial, commercial and administrative centre in north-west Queensland. Mt Isa Mines operates one of the largest silver-lead mines in the world. Copper and zinc are also mined and processed in the area. There is a 900 kilometre rail link to the eastern coastal city of Townsville where the ore is railed for shipment overseas. Mt Isa is about 350 kilometres from the Gulf of Carpentaria where Burke and Wills discovered the ocean after walking several thousand miles from Coopers Creek in South Australia.
The pub meal was on our agenda that night. This time we had two big chops, chips and salad, all for $7.50. What a bargain.
September 11th. Mt Isa.
Kevin turned up again at breakfast and wanted another photo. Before leaving at 8am I sold a Kimberley magazine to a man who had seen me at the Mitchell Plateau in the Kimberley in 1988. As we headed east, the scenery was quite beautiful with soft colours. I made good time especially going down the hills. I passed an Aboriginal monument and later a Burke and Wills monument stating that they had passed that point.
Arriving in Cloncurry, once an important base of the Flying Doctor, I bought a paper. There was a good article about me in it but they had called me Peter. Never mind, they can’t get everything right! Cloncurry had also been a rich copper area but the pastoral industry, mainly cattle, has now taken over from mining. We visited the John Flynn (Royal Flying Doctor Service) museum and despite losing nearly two hours looking around, I still managed to ride 204 kms.
September 12th. Near Julian Creek.
Wind gusts in the night were very strong causing me to wake a few times. A moth crawled into my ear and kept flapping which became annoying. I tried pouring baby oil in to the ear to wash it out but, although it stopped flapping, I didn’t know if it had come out.
I reached Julian Creek by 9.30am and Richmond by 5.20pm, completing 200kms. I continued cycling for another 40kms bringing the total to 240kms.
September 13th. Between Richmond and Hughendon.
A cold strong wind was blowing from the east, slowing my progress. The interview with the Isa local radio station was played at 10.30am so the boys stopped and I was able to listen to it. At Hughendon, an historical town and an important area for dinosaur remains, I took some money out of the bank. We had lunch at 11.30am and took off again at midday. It was still windy when Tim and John caught up with me. They had bought me a sausage roll as a treat. The day crept by without much happening and as we passed through the small village of Cape River I made a few phone calls. I arrived at camp in the dark pretty cold having cycled only 155kms.
September 14th. Cape River.
I woke up at 2.50am. Everything was damp and cold but I managed to slip away, severely rugged up, by 3.25am, with the road lit up by a quarter moon. Just before sun-rise the birds, including kookaburras, started singing and then several trucks passed, shattering the peace. Tim and John caught up 15 kms before Charters Towers, a beautiful, historic gold mining town, one of the best preserved old towns with original buildings.
I had lunch 47kms out of town, feeling a bit sleepy but livened up after eating. Reaching Townsville at 2.30pm, after a few down-hill sections and 203kms completed, I cycled straight to the post office. Soon afterwards, I had interviews with the ABC radio.
September 15th. Townsville.
After toast and porridge for breakfast, it was time to catch up with our shopping and organising. Later that afternoon we watched an aircraft and fireworks display.
September 16th Sunday. Townsville.
I phoned the paper and had an interview with a journalist who asked questions so quickly that I didn’t have time to answer before he asked another. He was paid well; he earned $38,000 doing freelance work outside his normal job.
When I rang Jenny she was feeling much happier, partly because she would soon see me. Jenny had been going through a tough time with me not being there.
I left Townsville at 1.50pm with lots of traffic heading my way. By nightfall we found a campsite on the side of the road heading out towards a rubbish tip, near Rollingstone.
September 17th. Rollingstone.
There were mysterious noises in the night but I felt secure in my tent. I flew past cane fields in the early morning where some farmers were harvesting. Others were clearing forest to replace the trees with cane fields. Every-one talked about the dreaded cane toads in north Queensland but I couldn’t find one anywhere – only dead roos on the road. I arrived in the busy town of Ingham and stopped for a paper. Leaving the town and climbing a steep hill, I enjoyed great views of Hinchinbrook Island and the channel. At Cardwell we had lunch under large shady trees looking out towards the murky ocean. The tide was out and mud skippers were jumping. Clouds were hovering over the island.
Just before reaching Tully, I noticed a pig’s head balanced on a bridge support. Wild pigs are numerous in the north where they destroy crops, cause erosion and can be dangerous. Further on, cane was being hauled to the factory by long cane trains. The carriages and engine were a third of the size of normal trains, giving them a toy-like appearance. I arrived in town at about 3.00pm, placed my bike on top of the vehicle and drove out to the Tully River. I had canoed the Tully in 1984, when I was a real beginner, and now I wanted to see what the river was really like. Several rafting companies were using the river which still had the big rapids on it which I remembered. We camped that night at a Forestry camp ground under one of the shelters. It was a great site but the continuous tropical rain pelted down all night.
A section of the Tully River.
September 18th. Tully River.
With the extremely heavy rain still falling, it is no wonder that Tully is the wettest town in Australia and that the Tully River is one of the best and most reliable rivers for canoeing and rafting. The annual rainfall is 4400mm. As well as being a tourist centre the area grows sugar, bananas, tea and timber. Back at Tully I started cycling again, but before I got out of town I spotted Colin Vucak, a friend from Perth who worked for the rafting company Raging Thunder. We had a few quick words before leaving.
Welcome to the tropics.
The weather was steamy with intermittent showers, so I was either wet with sweat or wet from rain. Arriving in Innisfail, (another sugar cane town) at 11.00am, we went to the wharf on the Johnstone River to meet Alby Mangles, John’s old friend. Alby was a bit of a house-hold name after making several adventure films around the world. It was with John that Alby had made a film called ‘World Safari’ which was a great hit. John did most of the camera work. After John decided to study Buddhism, Alby continued to make more films, usually with pretty girls as partners. The films were all interesting viewing, I remember seeing one in the Morley Town Hall.
John & Alby meet for the first time for many years.
Alby had a giant catamaran, called ‘Niord’. We chatted to him and his sister, Ria who offered to take us out to Josephine Falls near Mt Bartle Frere later. It was beautiful rainforest with a stream being squeezed between the green foliage and cascading over multiple drops into pools of water. When the surrounding rainforest opened up, because of the cascade and rock shelf widening, a super slide several metres wide and a few metres high formed, causing the water to become shallow and to slide over the smooth rock into a deep pool. Ria and John braved the cold water on a quest to have fun sliding down and climbing the watery rock incline. I decided against it as it just looked too cold and a little hazardous.
Tim, John and Ria at Josephine Falls.
John and Ria brave the water slide.
Back in town, I dropped into the radio station and local paper and later, on board Alby’s yacht, we had chicken curry, cake, Baileys and wine. Alby was trying to get his yacht finished in time for a trip he had planned. As we talked, John and Alby did a lot of reminiscing which was very interesting to listen to. Alby had his young girlfriend visiting. He sounded like a genuine and caring person and still liked beautiful young women, it seemed. I slept in the galley.
September 19th. Innisfail.
After breakfast I visited the local paper and radio station after which we drove to the Sugar Museum, had a look around, and returned to the wharf in heavy rain. I lost no time and left Innisfail in a rainstorm. By the time we passed Queensland’s highest mountain, Mt Bartle Frere, clouds had engulfed the summit, the roads were wet and heavy rain storms continued. In Gordonvale, Tim stopped to have a word with his relatives. I passed them by and cycled right into the heart of Cairns where they later caught me up. Cairns had certainly changed over the years, it’s now very touristy. We found a van park just before the town and hired a unit with shower and TV. What luxury! I cooked beans on toast, pancakes and fruit salad.
September 20th. Cairns.
After eggs on toast, I cleaned my bike and sorted out our gear. I later visited the bike shop and changed the clusters and crank bearings before visiting the post office (to get our mail) and collect information from various places about the coastline north of Cooktown.
It was a big day for John. Linda who we met in Gracetown three days into our trip was arriving to spend four weeks with him/us. The plane, however, was delayed. It was a strange reunion. Although we were all pleased to see her, our small abode was not the place for Linda and John to restart their relationship. Tim and I slept in single bunks less than a metre away from Linda and John’s double bed. John didn’t think that Linda might want them to have a room of their own. Linda looked a little bewildered. What a reunion! I found out later that Linda had been dreaming about their reunion. She had thoughts of being swept away to a beautiful hotel in the middle of a rainforest and being able to ravage John and to make up for the months apart. Although they had been acquainted for only two nights back at the beginning of our trip in May, they had written many letters to each other since then.
As we all bedded down to sleep, Linda’s disappointment must have been overwhelming.
September 21st. Cairns.
We rushed to get the gear stuffed into the vehicle before moving off into town. I visited the boat shop, the Flying Doctor HQ, (to tell them of my plans) the Commonwealth bank, K Mart, RAC, and the shops after which I had an interview with ABC radio. At 3.15pm it was time to cycle out of town, visiting the fibreglass factory on the way out.
I moved along the coastline heading north to Port Douglas getting great glimpses of the beautiful coastline, the cliffs and the rainforest along the way. It was only 60 or so kilometres which took me just less than 2 1/2 hours. Jean and Alan, John’s friends, who lived a stones throw from the famous Port Douglas beach were expecting us to stay the night and have tea. They were really friendly people who offered us the run of their home. The evening meal was amazing; roast dinner, ice cream, melon and lamingtons.
September 22nd. Port Douglas.
Breakfast was just as delicious as the meal the previous evening. It started off with cereal followed by eggs on toast, with orange juice and coffee to swill it down. After spending months eating very basically out in the open, it was beautiful to be in a house and be able to sit down in a chair and eat off a table.
We unloaded the vehicle again, this time to leave behind items not needed for our trip up to Cape York. I then had to make a hatch in the back of the kayak in order to get the Flying Doctor radio in the bulkhead; the round hatch that was already in it wasn’t big enough to allow it to pass through. It took some time to make the hatch but when it was finished I was quite proud of it. The radio fitted in perfectly and it turned out to be fully waterproof.
A local reporter turned up and spent nearly 2 hours with me. He then went away and forgot his camera. As we sat talking over dinner, we learned that Alan had completed a Scuba Diving Course at the age of 72. Alan and Jean were a very active couple.
September 23rd Sunday. Port Douglas.
It was going to be an easy day as I only had to get my equipment and preparations finished while John took the vehicle to a mechanic to fix the seals on the rear wheels. When he returned, we then set about putting new rubber washers on all the spring hangers, which took some time. We couldn’t leave until the vehicle was completely checked over; we had over two thousand kilometres of rough tracks ahead and very few places to get repairs done.
In the afternoon I took the kayak out for a test run, to make sure that the hatch didn’t leak in rough conditions.
September 24th. Port Douglas.
I went out for another practise paddle on the ocean. I hadn’t paddled for several months so I needed to put some miles in. A pug-nosed dolphin broke the surface beside me. Its tail flapped in the air as it dived. For a moment it was lost and then it surfaced and started moving further away from me. Within minutes, I had lost sight of it. After a few kilometres I returned for breakfast; porridge, eggs and toast. My stay in Cairns and Port Douglas was the longest break I had taken so far but I couldn’t move without the vehicle and my equipment being in good shape.
Alan drove us to the Mosman Gorge after lunch. It was very lush, thick with rainforest and water cascading down a creek in the Gorge. There were stacks of people but the scene was so beautiful it didn’t really matter. We took to the water and had a swim. It was cold, really cold. A young woman walking across the rocks tripped and fell on her backside slipping into the water. Hitting the cold water gave her such a shock that she panicked. She struggled out and sat on the rocks, trying to warm up.
At 5.20pm I took to the water again. This time it was windy. As the boat sliced through the waves about 500 metres from the beautiful, famous Four Mile beach, a crocodile floated within metres. At first I thought it might be a log, as I didn’t really believe it could be a croc, but I looked again and it certainly was. It dived as I moved out to sea. I never saw it again. Closer to the beach, two girls were kayaking and one had capsized. The croc was a long way off so I said nothing; I let them play in the small waves, along with several other people who were enjoying the beach. I informed the local paper about the croc and when the small article was published, the rival local paper accused me of lying. Some years later, a man was savaged by a croc just further south of this point.
The vehicle was ready so we could leave in the morning so I could continue my cycle up to Cooktown where I would start my kayaking trip to Cape York.
September 25th. Port Douglas.
With four consecutive nights of lack of sleep I awoke tired and with a slight headache. At 8.30am it was great to be on the road again. It was very cloudy, with gale force winds current from Cairns to Cape York. I said goodbye and thanks to Jean and Alan who had been kind to us while we were there.
I passed the butterfly house, which was on the road out from Port Douglas, and then cycled along the main road towards Mossman. A sugar truck towing a second trailer came so close it forced me off the road. As I cycled off the grass verge, a truck driver coming from the other direction laughed his head off. I was a little shaken and angry but at least I wasn’t hurt.
At Mossman I stopped for our final bits of shopping, rang Jenny and left the sugar town at 10.15am. Along the way to the Daintree River, cane farmers were busily harvesting. I arrived at the ferry at 11.30am, had lunch, took the kayak off the vehicle and then paddled down the Daintree River for 25 minutes before finishing up on the other side, where the ferry docked. Crocodile signs were erected either side of the river but I didn’t see any as I paddled along its banks with rain forest growing down to the river’s edge. Although I had kayaked many other rivers that were more isolated and had a much bigger crocodile population, I still got goose bumps as I paddled, even knowing there was a lot less chance of being attacked here. Spotting a crocodile in the water is often difficult. They lie there with only their nose and eyes protruding above the surface. They often look like floating sticks. I’ve mistaken many crocodiles for sticks and often mistaken sticks when they are really crocodiles. Back in 1988, a crocodile came a little too close for comfort.
June 1988 – Collier Bay
Bleary-eyed from the glare, trickling sweat and stinging salt, we paddled hour after hour. I had been rammed by a shark that morning so it was a pleasure to be close to a small island where we could rest. Exhausted, we paddled in silence, slowly creeping towards a semi-circular pebbly beach. Suddenly, with no warning there was an enormous splash close to Ewen’s boat. I glanced over and was confronted with the most chilling sight. The open jaws of a crocodile were gripping the stern of his kayak. “Croc”, I bellowed. Ewen let out a shout of terror and accelerated as the croc held fast. The croc dropped off but the respite was short lived. Moments later it exploded from the water and struck again, its open jaws bent on crushing the kayak. It was terrifying and I was helpless to assist my friend. The predator’s jaws were locked around his kayak’s stern. It lifted its head high out of the water arched its back and tried desperately to put the kayak in a death roll. Fear was shaking my body, I was icy cold and my heart raced out of control. Ewen, who must have been super terrified never looked back, his arms pumped like windmills and as the seconds ticked by the croc lost its grip.
I had been chased by many crocodiles in the Kimberley. All but the one that attacked Ewen’s kayak came very close but never touched the kayak. However, it is still a frightening experience. Salt water crocodiles are notorious for attacking and never giving up, so most crocodile attacks are fatal. In 1987 when I was paddling up the Prince Regent River, an American women who was swimming at the famous Kings Cascade was taken by a crocodile. A few days later her mutilated body was found up a mangrove creek.
I remember when I returned to Perth after one trip in the Kimberley, I thought that every stick in the Swan River (where I paddled) was a crocodile, and this was over 2200kms from the nearest crocodile habitat. Within a few days of paddling, I came to grips with myself and all was forgotten!
Daintree River Ferry.
I returned to the ferry ramp to join the support crew who were waiting. The aim of my trip was to walk, cycle and kayak around Australia without using any transport, so that meant I couldn’t take the ferry across, so I had the option of swimming or kayaking. Knowing that there were crocs in the river made swimming out of the question, so I chose the kayak.
I changed my transport mode again, taking to the mountain bike to climb over the steep range to an education centre set in the rain forest on the other side. Back on the main track I passed a garage, an airfield and even a phone! The wilderness had been spoiled here some years previously when the forest had been logged. Progress has even come to the magnificent Daintree National Park. Workmen working on a road bridge further on blocked the main access route so I had to detour across a small, rocky river slightly upstream of the bridge. As it was too difficult to ride, I walked across it, getting my feet wet in the process. A little further, Thornton Beach looked rather inviting but I resisted going for a swim. A few kilometres inland, Thornton Peak, 1374m, one of the highest peaks in this part of the world, lay hidden among the thick, jungled hills. Mist prevented me from seeing the peak, which is much sought-after to be climbed by naturalists and the most dedicated of bushwalkers. I stopped at the Bouncing Stones beach near Noah Head camping area, before moving on to Cape Tribulation, one of the most popular wilderness destinations in Australia. Hidden amongst the tropical rainforests are small accommodation resorts and a walk path that follows the rainforest and mangroves to the spectacular coast. Although it is a popular retreat for some, we saw hardly a soul on our walk.
The track after Cape Tribulation was not recommended for vehicles other than four wheel drives. It soon became apparent why. The first hill was so steep that I only just made it without getting off my bike. I then enjoyed a great ride down the other side but was faced with such a steep hill I knew that I could never make it. Tim and John caught up at this point and for a moment I had my doubts about the four-wheel drive getting over, also. With John selecting low range, the Toyota slowly climbed and laboured up the steep climb. I followed with less success. When I sat on the seat and pedalled, my front wheel came off the ground. If I stood up on the pedals I lost traction and went nowhere. I tried hard but was beaten, so I had to walk until the incline flattened close to the top of the hill. The view behind was stunning, the rainforest sweeping right down to the edge of the tropical blue ocean. At the top, I paused to take in the view and get my breath back before tackling a super downhill run. After passing Mt Cowie, I left the National Park and soon after, the boys found a camping spot at Woobadda Creek where we had a swim. When we moved from under the rainforest canopy that evening, the sky was perfectly clear.
Wow what a hill!
September 26th. Woobadda Creek.
Tim’s, John’s and Linda’s sleeping bags were damp from dew after they spent the night sleeping under the stars. I hit my first steep hill soon after I left camp at 7.25am, and caught my breath when descending. Sighting surveyors on the road, I stopped and talked to a young guy, who was a serious cyclist and didn’t really like working in the bush because it prevented him from training. The surveyors mentioned that their dog had captured a roo the previous day and killed it. I left them and cycled several smaller hills before reaching the Bloomfield River. The tide was out so it made crossing a lot easier, although it was rocky with one deep section that I had to walk through. After crossing, I passed an Aboriginal community. It looked very tidy. Men were working in the stockyard, and large Brahman cattle roamed the track and surrounding area. The track continued up and down until I got close to the Bloomfield Township where it flattened out, revealing a beautiful view of the river. I talked to locals selling vegetables. Beyond the community, the open fields in the valley were soon lost when the mountains started to close in. Again, the hills made progress extremely hard as I cycled higher along the road winding up the range passed through the Cedar Bay National Park. A community of Cedar Bay (down near the coast) had a reputation of being a hippy type community.
Crossing the Bloomfield River.
By 10.15am, on a steep ascent, the crew caught up. Linda had completed a painting so it had taken them a while to catch up. Just before reaching the top of the range, I climbed a steep concrete ramp, a solid section of road that had been built to ensure that vehicles were able to climb it without losing traction.
Across the range it was mostly down hill to the Lions Den pub, situated 35kms from Cooktown. Built in 1875 and very close to the Annan River it had a tin roof, old artefacts, wooden stools and writing on the walls. As an important watering hole for tin miners, stockmen, tourists and local Aborigines, it’s not to be missed. I even had a beer.
Leaving the pub, I soon joined the main Mount Molloy to Cooktown road. I remember the road was very rough in 1985 when we drove it after doing an around-Australia trip by car. Today it was quite civilised and I made good progress as I passed the Black Mountain. Stopping to look at the unique massive heap of loose granite 470 metres high, I drank from the water bottle to replenish fluid that I had lost since leaving the pub. The mountain looked intriguing, every rock was black, apparently caused by algae that covered them. Many of the rocks were huge and beneath them, large caverns formed. Apparently the boulders make a hollow sound when hit. Huge, green, solitary clumps of vegetation, which looked like weeds, grew between some of the boulders. I left the Black Mountain on a down hill run and arrived in Cooktown at 2.15pm. Cooktown had changed a lot since I visited in 1985; then as I remember had seemed rather plain and boring. Now, the main street was unrecognizable if fact it had charm. Many of the buildings had been renovated and other buildings were freshly painted.
Before settling down in the caravan park, I took off on a kayak trip around the harbour. The sea was rough which made me feel good as I pushed through the waves and the kayak reared to and fro. A yacht with four small children aboard was making its way north. I tried to follow but the wind flooded their sails and they took off, leaving me standing still. I returned to the beach, where Tim picked me up. While I had been away Linda had completed another painting.
Cycling into Cooktown.
September 27th. Cooktown.
The wind continued in the night, making my tent vibrate. It was going to be one of those days where I had lots to do, but little would be gained. All my gear had to be checked over one more time, maps had to laminated, and I needed to do more paddling. Late that afternoon, I prepared everything for the following day.
TO CAPE YORK
September 28th. Cooktown.
After a good night’s sleep I awoke at 6am realising that this was the day that I would be leaving the security of the shore and heading out along a remote coastline, alone. I had my last breakfast before packing and going over my schedule with the crew. They drove to the beach near Captain Cook’s landing, and I met them there on my bike. Captain James Cook beached his ship Endeavour here in 1770 to repair damage after running aground on a coral reef, but it wasn’t until 1872 that Cooktown really became populated after gold had been discovered nearby. Around that time there was a transient population of some 30,000 people, including 2,500 Chinese. Now there are only 1000 people and the town survives on tourism.
Captain Cook Statue.
At the beach, I started loading. It was a brilliant morning – clear blue skies and quite warm. With the last piece of gear loaded in the bulkheads, I placed the hatch covers on. Inside, I had 50 litres of water, enough food for 18 days, a Flying Doctor Radio and other gear to see me through the next two or three weeks. Meanwhile, Tim filmed my every movement.
I gave Linda a hug, said goodbye to the boys and entered my kayak, circled the area while Tim took some photos, returned for my camera and took off past boats and fisherman. Finally, I paddled out of the estuary, leaving the mountain scenery that circled the harbour and where Captain Cook had beached his boat for repairs. Cooktown soon faded from my sight.
Go to next chapter. Cooktown to Cape York. (Paddle).