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Australia #1, Days 302 - 309: Cycling Across the Nullarbor in Summer (1/3)


cycling the eyre highway

Days 302 – 304

After six days in Bali, I touched down in the world’s most isolated city. The airport’s doors opened to a wall of heat. An oven. The hottest day of the year, in fact. As the air-con shield evaporated, I drowned in a wave of anxiety.


Twenty minutes earlier, border control had aired their disbelief at my endeavour: “Why are you doing it at the hottest time of year?”, “the Nullarbor is not a joke”, “if it’s 38C here, it’s 50C on the plain”. Encouraging and unbelievably positive, I thought. Although I couldn’t help but let their echoes infiltrate my naivety. Their concerns were valid. The Nullarbor is no joke. It may have been cycled a thousand times before, but rarely is it done in summer. And for good reason.


To most non-Australians, the Nullarbor doesn’t mean much. To Australians, it’s a mythical world at their country’s southern centre. An arid moonscape; a deep orange that runs for 1,200 kms from Western Australia to South Australia. A barren, dry wasteland with nothing but a handful of petrol stations (or roadhouses), equivalent in length to the UK. It’s a place where water is sacred, worshipped even, and in limited supply. Many Australians believe driving across the Nullarbor is a challenge, a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. So, the idea of cycling across it: utterly ridiculous, unheard of. And in summer: death warrant.


I had been warned about the Nullarbor six months earlier: “Harriet, people have cycled across Australia before. Perth to Sydney is ridden all the time… I don’t know what the fuss is about," I declared. “There’s literally nothing there,” she replied. “Nothing. And, you’re doing it in summer. People don’t cycle across the Nullarbor in summer”. Still, I took her words with a pinch of salt. I was convinced that cycling across the Nullarbor – summer or otherwise – was not as uncommon as Australians would make you believe.


Melting under Perth’s unforgiving sun, I walked along a quiet residential street. Behind a bright red door stood Nina and John, two seventy-somethings, who had travelled extensively in their younger years. With two beaming smiles, they welcomed me into their small urban cottage. Instantly I felt at ease, like a reunion between long-lost relatives. Without hesitation I was encouraged to tell the tales of the cycle thus far. They were impressed; enthusiastic even. After an afternoon of atlas analysis, they had ridden the highs and the lows of the past eleven months. Nina’s intrigue was evident; she was reliving her own adventures through mine.


In return, they shared stories of escapades across Africa, the Middle East and the Sub-Continent, during the 70s and 80s. A time when global travel was rare, and international communications was a Tim Berners-Lee wet dream. It was the epitome of travel authenticity, the definition of the unknown. A world unparalleled to our present, yet – to my surprise — experiences that echoed my own.


During the two days I stayed with Nina and John, I was treated to a true Aussie BBQ, I prepared food for the road, spoke to a meteorologist, and I was in a constant state of shock at the value of the Australian dollar. Nina and John’s generosity was unlimited – I was given fly nets, Mac chargers, plugs, fuel, and sweets.


I returned to my steed grateful, yet sad. Once again, I had to leave strangers turned friends – it felt like I had known them for years, not days. I pushed down hard on the pedals and tried to put the next two months to the back of my mind. I was anxious. Anxious about the heat, lack of water, food, and headwind. Before I left, I was given one last parting gift from Nina and John. A friend of theirs had an apartment 100 kms east of Perth. The apartment stood empty and was mine for the evening. Exactly what I needed.


cycling Perth to Norseman

That evening, I arrived in Northam. I hadn’t shifted the unsettled feeling in my stomach. The further east I rode, the more desolate my surroundings became. The road was foreign. The heat had been bearable, but my thoughts were negative. I decided to take each day as it came and to stop trying to predict the unknown. With that mindset, I took advantage of the apartment’s air con and kitchen and spent the evening inhaling calories.


Days 305 – 306

Joined on the road by the deafening chatter of king parrots, cockatoos, and galahs, I was astonished at the abundance of wildlife living in the desert. For the next 100 miles, light entertainment came in the form of guessing bird species, flicking flies from my face, cursing the heat, and dodging road trains. Time flew.


I arrived in Merredin by lunchtime. An oasis in the outback, I was relieved to find free drinking water and shade. Relief was short lived, however, when I learnt that the free campsite was for RVs only – and that the county was under a total fire ban. “You’re putting lives at risk!”, was the aggressive response I received from the tourist office when I asked if camping stoves were included in the ban. Not wanting to venture another 20 kms to the next rest stop, or ready to eat cold baked beans for dinner, I paid to stay in the town’s campsite. An unexpected expense, but one with a silver lining – an ice cold swimming pool.


The next morning, I left Merredin and headed into the depths of the outback. I say outback, but it was far from it. Settlements built every 60-100 kms were a luxury; a luxury I didn’t appreciate at the time, but would lust after in days to come.


cycling across the nullarbor

I followed a large water pipe along the Eyre Highway. The pipe was over 100 years old; a 600 km lifeline for the communities that sat between Perth and Kalgoorlie. On a map, the Eyre Highway is dotted with place names every 25 kms. Before the invention of the car, 25 kms was the distance a horse and cart could travel per day. Since 1893, the area has been mined for Gold. It still is. Yet the need for rest stops is no more. Most of the dots now lay abandoned, empty wooden structures left in the wake of technological advancements.


The sound of a freight train echoed from behind. I jumped off the tarmac; a bid to save myself from a fatal end. In doing so, the front tyre slipped on the gravel. The uneven weight of the bike meant I lost traction with the ground and fell sideways into a plume of orange dust.


The right fork cage had broken. I dug out the electrical tape from the depths of the saddle bag to reattach the cage. In doing so, I noticed the right shifter didn’t look right. I lent the bicycle against a tree to inspect. The shifter had completely snapped, like a limp wrist. The only thing keeping it in place was the brake cable.


“FOR F**K SAKE!”, I yelled.


I’d only stopped for five minutes, but word was out. Australian flies are a breed unlike any else, their perseverance knows no limits. They’re an irritation beyond words. A menace. A plague. A plague that digs into eyes, ears, and nostrils. A swarm of flies were on the hunt for prime real estate on my salt stained skin, it was the most affection I’d experienced in months.


flies on the nullarbor

Affection aside, I focused on one issue at a time. I first fixed the minor problems; broken fork cage, reduced saddle height, handlebar alignment, and broken right pannier hook. I then inspected the shifter. If I held it in place, the front brake worked, ever-so-slightly. The chain ring still shifted from large to small, and the chain was sitting in the middle cassette. It could have been worse. My only option was to continue. With two gears and one working brake, I crawled to the nearest town.


Southern Cross was the accumulation of one street and a small collection of empty shops. No sign of a bicycle shop, I hopped from one store to another until I met Stephen. Stephen was a local, an outback OG. In his 50s, he ran one of two car mechanics in ‘town’.


“It’s 40C mate, you really shouldn’t be cycling in this heat”, he proclaimed. “I’m an idiot”, I fired back before he had the chance to further state the obvious. I told him what had happened, “Mate, I’m a car mechanic, I know nothing about push bikes. I‘ve got brake cables though, if you want?” He inspected the damage. “You’ve messed this up a good’un. It’s gone to shit, look at it. There’s no way I can fix this,” he confessed. The damage was worse than I’d let myself believe. I needed an entirely new shifter.


Stephen took it upon himself to call every known bicycle shop in Perth. The amount of time he dedicated to the cause was worthy of a knighthood. “How are we going to get him back on the road?!”, Stephen yelled down the phone, after being told for the fifth time that the entire country was out of stock of Shimano. In one last ditch attempt, Stephen called the only bicycle shop in Kalgoorlie, a mining town two days' ride east. The shop said they had a Microshift supplier, a cheap alternative to Shimano, and could order a shifter to be delivered from Perth. It’d take two days to arrive. The stars were aligned.


I thanked Stephen profusely, before I rolled into the town’s campsite. I regretfully splashed another $20 on a piece of grass, but I was wrecked, with no energy to sleep in the wild, and I still needed to stock up on supplies.


shade on the nullarbor

Days 307 – 308

After two days spent staring into an endless horizon, I arrived in Coolgardie – a village 40 kms west of Kalgoorlie. I sat on the pavement outside a grocery store eating breakfast, counting down the hours until I had a new shifter, when a Queensland couple took pity on me. After some words of wisdom and a much needed bout of encouragement, their parting gesture was a tin of sardines, a handful of tomatoes, two rolls of bread and a lump of cheese. Australians are known for their hate of cyclists, yet I’d experienced anything but.


coolgardie

Welcome to the Wild West. Kalgoorlie is one of the strangest towns I've visited. It’s a mining town that sits a four day ride east of Perth. Established in 1893, it‘s home to one of the largest gold mines in the world. Its airport acts as a passage to ship thousands of miners in and out of the town on a bi-weekly basis. Western chains exist next to cheap fry-up restaurants and local pubs. After four days of riding through nothingness, cycling into Kalgoorlie was the biggest juxtaposition I’d experienced.


The owners of the bicycle shop knew of my imminent arrival, so there was no shock when I walked into the air-conned oasis. It was a somewhat hostile welcome, they made their disapproving opinions of my Nullarbor quest known. Yet I soon came to realise that their direct nature was common practice, more a personality trait than a personal attack. They soon softened. To my shock, the shop sold Schwalbe Marathon Plus tyres, a product I’d unsuccessfully been searching for since Pakistan. “I can’t believe you stock these”, I erupted. “Yeah, for idiots like you, who try to cycle the Nullarbor”, the owner replied. I’d got used to the words “idiot”, “stupidity”, “naive”, thrown my way. I took it as a compliment.


After being told the story of a cyclist who was killed by a road train recently, the owner suggested I register at the police station in Norseman – the next and final settlement before the Nullarbor. They were also the third person who told me to wear high-vis. So, I ventured out on the hunt for a reflective vest, and only returned once I’d found one.


$500 dollars lighter, but with a fully functioning bicycle, I left Kalgoorlie. I cycled two hours south until dusk crept in. I found a sheltered spot on the side of the road and carried out the usual nightly routine, before passing out under the night’s sky.


cycling australian outback

Day 309

I stopped at a petrol station. Looking weathered, I asked the checkout woman for water. She returned with a bottle of Evian’s coldest, “Now, you look after yourself. Stay safe.”, she muttered, wanting no payment for the transaction.


Stay safe. Those words echoed in my mind for hours after. Every-single-person I met had told me to ‘stay safe’, which made me feel anything but safe.


limited water - norseman to ceduna

The Nullarbor is the land that stretches from Norseman (population: 562) to Ceduna (population: 1,955). As I entered Norseman, I passed a sign that stated: ‘Norseman – Ceduna, limited water. Stock up in Norseman’. Originally, I wanted to cycle past Norseman, entering only for an hour to stock up on supplies, but fate had other ideas. I discovered a cold shower in the public toilet block. I indulged. Fresh, I drove to the police station. The policewoman was shocked when I explained my plan. After an unsuccessful attempt at trying to persuade me to hitchhike, she noted my details. She requested that I register with the police station at the South Australia border. If they hadn’t heard anything in seven days, they’d send out a search party. A sobering thought.


We spent an hour discussing water. I could carry 10 litres - enough for one day, but three sections, between roadhouses, required 15 to 20 litres. The plan: speak to RVs at the campervan ground in Norseman; ask those travelling east if they could drop five litre water bottles along the route. I thanked the policewoman for putting the fear of god in me, but also for her help, and raced to the grounds. The RVs were parked in a semi circle around a large field. Going anti-clockwise, I spoke to the campers, one-by-one. Everyone was headed west, until I knocked on Alison and Paul’s door. Two spritely 50-somethings greeted my arrival. I explained the situation for the eighth time. Without a moment’s thought: “Yes! We’re heading east tomorrow and can definitely do this. We’d love to help”, they erupted. “You absolute LEGENDS, thank you. You are lifesavers, literally”, I exploded, with an un-wipeable grin.


water bottle drops on nullarbor

We taped signs to the bottles: ‘This water is for Ed Hawes - around the world cyclist. Do not steal’. We then used Google Maps and drop pinned locations for the street view. The first drop was in a letter box, outside a disused roadhouse. The second drop was a bush next to a long drop in a rest area. I took photos of each location’s street view image, and the plan was set in motion.


It was now 6pm, too late to cycle. I reluctantly went to a campsite, but after a back and forth with the owner, he let me stay for free. I called my mum to let her know that I wouldn’t have phone signal for the next seven to ten days. I also introduced her to road trains – and explained that the real threat was not the heat, but road trains. In hindsight, information she didn’t need to know. Sorry mum.


Afterwards, I sat down with Coby and Drago, the only other campers with tents. Over a glass of red wine, the couple shared their enthusiasm for the trip. It was a nice, welcomed distraction. But at 8.30pm, I wished them well. The following day would mark the start of The Nullarbor. I needed rest.

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