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Australia #3, Days 314 - 319: Cycling Across the Nullarbor in Summer (3/3)

cycling nullarbor national park

Day 314: Continued

I left Betty outside Eucla roadhouse and B-lined for the bathroom. I poured water over my head repeatedly until I had cooled down. Inside the restaurant, I stared gormlessly at the plain wall opposite. I was drained. Completely gone.

Two hours had passed when I heard a commotion outside. I looked out of the window to see a palm tree being blown horizontally, but in a westerly direction. The meteorologist was right. I snapped out of my gormless state and ran to my bike. I couldn’t believe the wind had turned – and, it was an aggressive tailwind.

I flew across the state border, entering the Nullarbor National Park, and the start of the Nullarbor. For as far as the eye could see, the National Park was decorated with purple, green shrubbery, thistles, and small vegetation. In latin “Nullarbor” translates to “place with no trees” – the colonists were a creative bunch – which is why the National Park is technically the Nullarbor. Yet, nowadays, the Nullarbor is referred to as the section between Norseman and Ceduna.

great australian bight

great australian bight

The Great Australian Bight, a dramatic cliff face carved out of the ocean, is a playground for humpback whales during winter months and a spectacle for four wheeled nomads in summer months. I followed campervans through dirt roads until I reached the cliff's edge and the planned camp spot.

Having clocked 120 miles, It was late by the time I’d stopped. Off the bike I was almost pushed over by the wind’s strength. I spent an hour trying to pitch the tent, much to the campervaners' enjoyment. I caught one woman taking photos as I battled against the wind. In hindsight, I should have grabbed her phone and thrown it over the cliff, but the tent would have gone with it. My efforts were reduced to nothing. I gave up after two tent poles bent. I used the outer layer as a bivvy and counted down the hours until sunlight.

bivvy on great australian bight

Day 315

I stared at the black void as an orange hue dispersed the stars. Morning had come, but I refused to move. I lay motionless thinking about my exhaustion. It wasn’t until the three overnight campervans had left that I emerged from my pit of despair.

great australian bight
If I tell you I enjoyed cycling the Nullarbor, show me this photo.

I meandered along the Shrubbery National Park, stopping every 10 miles to eat peanut butter sandwiches. The headwind had returned and I had no energy to move. Aside from sitting in self-pity, the only thing I could do was return to the steed. If you pedal for long enough, you end up on the other side of the world. If I pedalled for a few more hours, I’d reach the famous Nullarbor Roadhouse, where I could refuel.

cycling the nullarbor plain

I thought the Nullarbor National Park was finito, completo. But no. I was in disbelief when I passed a sign that stated: ‘The Nullarbor Plain’. The pain was set to continue. Here was a more vast, more desolate section – if at all possible – no shrubbery, no trees, no bush, no signs of life. Just orange dust, a negative internal monologue, and a severe headwind. I continued on, and on, until I saw light. A towering sign read: ‘The Nullarbor Roadhouse’. Relief.

$20 was the price for a section of hard floor in the car park, with an abandoned building acting as a wind shelter. No wind and a $1 shower, the first wash in seven days. It was a five star luxury.

camping in nullarbor roadhouse car park

I took two packets of instant noodles to the bar – the intention was to ask for boiling water. Before doing so, I sat down and began scribbling the day’s antics into the diary. That was when Ryan and his girlfriend approached. A couple travelling Australia by campervan, they had clocked the instant noodles and enquired whether it was my dinner. I told them it was. Surprised, they insisted that they would pay for dinner. I told them it was too expensive ($30), but thanked them for the kind offer. After a few minutes of back-and-forth, and a hefty amount of persuasion, I caved to their kindness. It was an incredible, unexpected end to a rough couple of days. Again, Australian kindness – like I’d experienced in most countries – was infinite. Thank you, Ryan.

Day 316

Rested, I woke up just before the sun. $20 well spent. The headwind was bad, but I felt positive. It was dawn and I had already made a heavy dent into the arid landscape. Before I knew it, the dust had turned to bush and gum trees returned to the road’s edges. I was out of the Nullarbor Plain and within touching distance of Ceduna.

cycling the nullarbor

Hours had ticked by by the time I pulled into Yalata, an abandoned roadhouse in the heart of Aboriginal land. I found the agreed water drop bush without struggle. Next to the water was a care package labelled ‘For Ed’. The two Australian noodle saviours I met a few days before, had not only successfully delivered a crucial lifeline, but they had provided a surprise selection of sweets and energy bars. I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. The beginning of the end was marked by the introduction of farmland. I could taste civilisation and smell Ceduna’s finish line.

And just like that, the afternoon’s headwind stole all positivity. Dust and sand was blown into the air, shielding much visibility. I crawled to the last roadhouse, Nunderoo, with little morale, motivation, or energy. I asked the cashier if the wind was forecast to drop anytime soon. He didn’t even look at his phone and replied: “The wind is always like this in the afternoon”. I took that as a solid no. I had no will to fight the wind, so I finished early and camped in the roadhouse’s garden.

Days 317 – 319

I was determined to beat the wind; desperate for a day off. I had to reach Ceduna by nightfall.

Alarm went off at 4am; on the saddle by 5.00am. It was pitch black. I dreaded joining the road train riddled highway at night. My parched mouth, a result of increasing anxiety. I could see a beam of light on the horizon, ever so slowly it drew closer. It was a road train. Despite travelling at 110kph, the headlights were a pin-prick in a sea of darkness. A visual reminder of the vast lay of the land.

I couldn’t see the Garmin but I could feel the wind’s weight. Progress was slow. My legs screamed for rest. My eye’s bloodshot, fighting against another night of sleep deprivation. But, I continued on. The road train eventually passed, driving towards the orange abyss. I heard another, this time coming from behind, so I jumped off the asphalt to the safety of gravel. As I waited for 150 tonnes of metal to fly past, I questioned, once again, the risk to life. At that exact moment, the head torch ran dead. The one thing keeping me on the road had lasted just over an hour. I’d only travelled 13 miles – quicker than previous days, but not quick enough.

Too dangerous to continue, I laid on the ground and stared at the stars. I wrapped myself in a jacket to try and control the shivering. As soon as the sun rose, the temperature would follow, I reminded myself. Yet, I didn’t want the sun to rise. Rest was welcomed. I wanted to escape, disappear into the night’s sky and forget about the torture of a limitless plain.

After 30 short minutes, I hauled my broken body back to the steed. It didn’t take long before I was propelled out of the saddle due to a cloud cracking clap. I looked around frantically to see where the sound had come from – a vicious thunderstorm was sat at three o’clock. Forks lit the sky; dramatic shots of electricity hit the parched ground. Then, another boom. This time at one o’clock. ‘This can’t be happening’, I thought to myself. The horizon to my right was covered in dark purple storm clouds, a haze of falling rain shrouded any landscape. A relief for the bush, a nightmare for me.

Alone on the road with zero prospect of shelter was a daunting and vulnerable moment. Before I left Perth, the meteorologist mentioned that if I was to encounter thunder and lightning, I should seek shelter immediately. Storms are rare, but brutal. He mentioned that lightning is attracted to the highest object from ground level. At that moment, I was the highest point from ground level.

I cycled on in the hope I’d outrun the storm. At one point, I thought I’d been successful. That thought was shattered when a heart stopping boom shook the ground. “SHIT-T-ING HELL”, I yelled. The thunderstorm was not in front, behind, left or right. It was overhead. Heavy raindrops flooded the tarmac. I raced towards a single tree in the distance. By the time I’d come to a halt, every inch of naked skin was covered in flies. I erected the tent in record time and decided to wait out the storm. I ate the last of the peanut butter and bread, and let the sound of rain on the outer layer send me to sleep.

I woke to a peacefulness. Blue skies covered the horizon and parrot chatter filled the air. I felt rested, relieved. Yet an hour had passed, it was already 10am. And I’d only covered 30 miles. The headwind persevered, but eventually I pulled into Penong. I rejoiced when I saw a WiFi sign in the window of the gas station. I had 15 minutes until connection with the outside world was cut off. I spent those precious minutes on Windy. The headwind was forecast to get stronger as the day went on. I threw two pies into my mouth and weighed up how much water I’d need to get to Ceduna. With the wind and heat, unnecessary weight, or not enough water, could be the deciding factor on whether or not I reached a destination. Not wanting to make the same mistake as a few days prior, I concluded that three litres would suffice. I walked up to the counter with an Oscar-worthy Hugh Grant impersonation, in the hope the checkout woman would reward British charm with sacred water. It worked.

By the time I left Penong, the wind had picked up significantly. I was more determined than ever to reach Ceduna by nightfall. It was all mental. My body was wrecked, but it adapts and will persevere, if told to. The only thing sat between me and the finish line was my mind. I broke the remaining distance into 10km stretches: ‘Just make it to the next 10kms’, I repeated.

And with that mindset, 13 hours after I had set off, I read the sign: ‘Welcome to Ceduna’.

Eight days since I left Norseman, I re-entered civilisation. I parked Betty outside Hungry Jack’s (Burger King). The aircon was ecstasy. A refreshing wave of cool, clean air washed over my salt stained clothes and sand ridden hair. I devoured an extra large whopper meal – apart from the roadhouse dinner, I’d only eaten pie, chips, instant noodles and peanut butter for the past 12 days. I looked at my phone, I had service for the first time since Norseman. I sent concerned friends and family a message announcing my arrival in Ceduna.

I sat and stared at the window for a while. An empty stare. Deep in thought. ‘Ed, you’ve cycled across the Nullarbor, in summer, you ledge.’ I told myself. It was a proud moment.

I’d arranged to stay with a Warmshowers host in Ceduna. Unfortunately, they weren’t in but still offered their garden as a temporary campsite. Grateful for a fence – a shield from the wind funnel outside. And, grass. I drifted off to sleep at 8pm and didn’t wake until 7am the next day. The longest, deepest sleep I’d had in months. My hosts, Ben and Jess, said I could stay another night with the promise of a bed and shower. They returned that evening, so I jumped at the chance.

I was under the impression that I had just completed the last challenge of the entire trip, the hardest section of Australia. Ben and Jess burnt that facade with the news that a five day heatwave was forecast. A heatwave that would see temperatures hit 47C+ – the worst heatwave in five years. At dinner, I pretended I hadn’t heard.

The next morning it was hard to say goodbye to my hosts and their two children. I knew stepping outside wasn’t wise. They were adamant it wasn’t. They said I could stay until the end of the week, but I was meeting friends in Adelaide. I had to keep moving. “If you need anything, send me a message. I’m driving to Port Lincoln tomorrow. I can pick you up and drive you there”, Jess insisted. It was a tempting offer, but I couldn’t ‘cheat’ – not after the Nullarbor.

“Ed, can I give you a hug? I want to give you a hug”, she asked. I didn’t know I needed a hug, but I really needed one.


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