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Australia #2, Days 310 - 314: Cycling Across the Nullarbor in Summer (2/3)

cycling the nullarbor, 90 mile straight

Day 310

I pitched the fly-free sweatbox and began my daily peanut butter sandwich ritual. The sky’s melting glow was at its highest point, so I had stopped at Fraser Range, an abandoned roadhouse. As planned, I found five litres of water in the roadhouse’s mailbox. Paul and Annie had pulled through, and in doing so, certified their legendary status.

Within moments of settling in for lunch, Coby and Drago had pulled up. Immediately, I welcomed them to Casa-del-Outback. An enthusiastic, loving couple, they continued to share their disbelief at what I was doing. They lived in Sydney and insisted I stayed with them when I reached the journey’s end. I gratefully accepted and took Coby’s number. As Coby stood by the car – eager to reach the South Australia border by nightfall – Drago shook my hand as a parting gesture. When I took my hand away, I noticed he had passed me two folded $50 bills. I looked at him in shock. Before I could say anything, he whispered: “The roadhouses are expensive, treat yourself to a warm meal.” Unaware of his hushed tone, I announced: “Thank you, this is very kind but I really can’t accept it.” His eyes widened. “Coby, I have given Ed $100 so he can treat himself to a warm meal”, he confessed, without taking his eyes off me. I quickly realised my mistake, but Coby’s response suggested it was not the first time her husband had given a stranger a handful of generosity. It was a kindness far too generous, but one I would never forget. Neither of them knew that I’d been counting pennies for weeks.

That afternoon was a mental endurance, consumed entirely by an easterly. I caved and cut the ride short. I found a patch of brown dirt under the protection of gum trees and celebrated the first day on the Nullarbor with a bowl of pesto pasta and a 9pm curfew.

Day 311

Halfway through the morning’s 30-mile stretch of headwind battery, I saw a black dot on the road’s horizon. It caught my attention because only automobiles and road trains had populated the landscape thus far. Inquisitively, I longingly stared at the black dot. As the dot drew closer, it became clear it was on the other side of the road. Rumours from previous Nullarbor encounters had forewarned that a madman was running the length of Australia. Could the dot be said madman? Surely not, I thought. The dot was too large to be a runner.

With time, I realised it was in-fact a cyclist. A comfort blanket in a vacuum of unfamiliarity, I threw an arm in the air and waved the dot down. McKenzie was a solo, female cyclist, with a light bikepacking set-up, and a 200 km daily average. Both eager to get on with the day, we covered a year’s worth of stories in a 15 minute quick-fire conversation. It was a conversation I didn’t know I needed, but I left McKenzie full of energy. I powered on to the Nullarbor’s first roadhouse, Balladonia.

Balladonia, an oasis of convenience in the midst of a desert. I left the shop with a loaf of bread. Much to my disappointment, I was priced out of convenience due to the inflated prices. Batting away flies, I sat on a bench outside the roadhouse and scraped chunky peanut butter onto slices of white bread.

Mid-daydream, a British motorcyclist (also called Ed), greeted me. I rolled off the usual spiel without much thought, yet his response wiped the haze from my eyes. “You are living life… this is something you will never forget… I wanted to cycle around the world, but I had a bike crash a few weeks before I planned to leave”, Ed explained. I could moan about headwinds and exhaustion all I wanted, but Ed was a reminder of the privilege and freedom I'd grown accustomed to, and often took for granted.

australia's longest road the nullarbor

cycling the 90 mile straight

Newfound positivity lasted most of the morning. I reached the 90-mile straight, a landmark in an unmarked land. A towering sign read: ‘The 90-Mile Straight. Australia's Longest Straight Road’. I dug my tripod out of the pannier – it was the only item I had packed which hadn’t been used. I threw the tripod on the ground and paraded around the sign like it was a trophy, using a remote control to take photos. Why had I waited until now to use the tripod?, I thought.

The novelty of cycling Australia's longest straight road was short-lived. A straight road is as dull as it sounds; made worse by rising temperatures, swarms of flies and an ever-increasing headwind.

The headwind got steadily worse until I was beaten down to an average of 8mph. To further batter morale, I reached a section of roadworks. All traffic was required to be escorted by a pick-up truck for the construction site’s entirety. The longest mile I’d ever cycled. Relief from the wind became a pipedream; the truck refused to act as shelter, driving too fast to follow. By the time I had reached the end, a lengthy queue of trucks, caravans and cars, travelling in the opposite direction, had formed. Engines turned off, due to the amount of time they had been forced to stay stationary, I bowed my head in shame as each driver peered to their right to eyeball the ‘idiot’ travelling by bicycle.

With all energy depleted, I arrived at the planned rest area. The day’s trauma was all-but-forgotten when I peered inside a bush next to the long drop. The bush was home to five litres of mineral water. For a second time, Paul and Annie had delivered on their promise and dropped a lifeline in the agreed place. I took the water, and a grin, to a picnic bench and started work on the night’s admin. My busyness was soon disrupted when a tall, middle-aged, Englishman jumped out of his caravan to feed his curiosity. We got talking, the usual questions. It turned out he was from Southampton; “you’re a HAMPSHIRE HOG as well!”, he yelled. I’d never heard that expression before, but I confirmed that I was in fact a ‘Hampshire Hog’. He replied with a big grin, “you must be dying for a tea. Would you like a Yorkshire Tea?”. His pleasure in being able to offer Britishness in a totally un-British landscape was infectious. I don’t drink tea, but I couldn't refuse.

Where leaf stricken trees dotted the empty landscape, red, orange dust carpeted the ground. It was a wild, remorseless wilderness. That evening the temperature dropped to 20C, to ease an uncontrolled spout of shivering, I pulled on a layer of down. The wind continued its unforgiving nature as darkness engulfed the Nullarbor, testing even the most experienced tent pitchers. That’s when a biblical halo appeared in my peripheral. A retired Aussie, travelling the country with his wife. He asked if I needed anything. Usually, I’d politely decline – I carried everything I needed. But this time was different. The wind had blown any chance I had of lighting the stove, so I asked if I could boil water with his kettle – a feast of chicken curry instant noodles was on the menu. Eager to help, he ran back to his caravan to put the kettle on.

Standing outside their house-on-wheels, I announced that I was on the hunt for a new pair of water-drop heroes. I explained Paul and Annie’s voluntary heroism – and without hesitation, my noodle saviours insisted that I had discovered the help I sought. After scouring Google Maps, we agreed on a spot, a few day’s ride from our exact location. Once again, I put hydration in the hands of strangers – without doubt I knew they’d pull through – and gave them an empty five litre bottle.

Day 312

A curve in the road – it was a feeling of pure joy I hadn’t thought possible. Not only was the curve the end of the 90-mile straight, but it marked the next roadhouse, Caiguna, and a hopeful break from the headwind.

I indulged in a plate of chips – aside from peanut butter sandwiches, it was the cheapest way to calorie-load. I was mid-way through a chip sandwich when a trucker approached. “You cycling the Nullarbor on that thing”, he asked in a thick Aussie accent, pointing towards Betty. “Yeah I am”, I replied, hoping his next announcement would feature subtitles. “Yooou’re facking idiot or what, mate?”. A predictable response that I had no energy to entertain. Instead I asked if he was able to see cyclists from the height of his moving skyscraper. It was a genuine question, I wore a high-vis vest like my life depended on it for a reason. “Only after I’ve run over you mate”, he bellowed with an uncontrolled laugh. I said nothing as I took another bite out of my chip sandwich. He noted that I hadn’t found it funny, so he went on to explain: “The sun’s heat reflects off the ground, so we can’t see shit until we’re right behind you”. He paused, threw his cigarette on the ground, and returned to his steed. “Stay safe, mate”, he yelled as he pulled out of the car park. I sat with his words until the chip butty came to its finale.

A puncture halted progress momentarily, a brief reminder of the suffering that comes under a melting sun. On a bike it’s at least 2C cooler than being stationary – a noticeable difference. Back in the saddle, the headwind was hard-going. Relief came when caravaners beeped their horns encouragingly. One woman wound down her window and yelled: “Come on you’ve got this, you’re doing incredible, keep at it!” I don’t know why, but her words hit me. I was digging deep, so hung onto her encouragement for the rest of the day.

I reached the next roadhouse, Cocklebiddy, two hours before sunset. After I had spent $8 on a Snickers bar and filled up on eight litres of water, another tourer appeared. A seventy-something Swiss man was cycling in the opposite direction. Just like Mckenzie, he was averaging 200km a day. In his twenties, he cycled around Australia's circumference with his wife. He was now riding from Sydney to Perth in a bid to “relive his youth”. A living legend.

camping in the outback

camping in the outback

With darkness on the horizon, I left the Swiss cyclist and drove further into the headwind. A few kms later I found a protected area off the road. It was a beautiful spot, a dusty moonscape encircled by gum trees. Mid-way through chopping on noodles, three inquisitive cows appeared from the bush opposite. They stood a few feet from camp and glared with confusion. I was convinced it was my end. No, I would not be plastered onto tarmac by a road train, suffer from blistering dehydration, or succumb to fatal heat stroke. I would be mauled to death by three inquisitive cows. My fears were not unjust; more people die from cow attacks each year than shark attacks. It’s a fact. I sat quietly, slurping on noodles, and explained to the herd that I wanted only to eat noodles in peace. After some time, they retreated.

Day 313

I snoozed the alarm, repeatedly. Big mistake. By the time I’d finished breakfast, the gum trees were being blown horizontally.

the nullarbor's madura pass

With nothing else to do, and only flies to aim my headwind frustration at, I cycled until I reached Madura Pass – the Nullarbor’s highest point. The viewpoint presented thousands of miles of nothingness, so vast in fact, that I was convinced I saw the curvature of the earth. As it neared 40C, I rolled down the hill into the next roadhouse. The Madura roundhouse was infamous for refusing to give water to weary travellers. Instead of going straight in with the punch, I opted to start with a sausage roll and a plate of chips. Shortly after the last mouthful, I begged to see a weather update on the host’s phone. She had WiFi but refused to give the password to anyone. Reluctantly she read the update. The forecast proved crucial, the next day's temperature would hit 45C+. I quickly moved on to the next question, one I’d spent an hour building up to. The answer was a predictable “no”. I explained I only needed enough water for the evening, until the next roadhouse. She explained that her water was made from the air due to the scarceness of rain. An interesting insight, but one I didn’t appreciate at the time. However, she eventually bowed to the pressure and I left Madura five litres happier and heavier.

I set up camp under an impressive orange glow, before letting the beauty of the night’s sky shine light onto my diary as I noted the day’s events.

camping in the outback

sunset camping in the outback

Day 314

Back in Perth, I had spoken to a meteorologist, who shared sound advice on weather patterns and expected wind directions: “A dramatic change in temperature over a single day will cause a shift in wind pressure, resulting in a wind change”, the meteorologist explained. “That means, if the temperature goes up, or down, the wind will switch from easterly to westerly and vise-versa”, he continued.

With a temperature rise of 5C on the cards, I lay in my tent and wondered whether his Mystic Meg predictions would materialise. That night, the wind’s attempts to disfigure the tent poles were all but unsuccessful, but it resulted in a sleepless night regardless. It meant I was on the road early. The overcast sky, and reduced headwind, fueled a pace I hadn't seen in days. I was optimistic.

I saw a water tank sitting slightly off the main road. I was worried I’d be refused water at the next roadhouse, so I sacrificed a bladder and filled it with tank water. A sign read: ‘not drinkable’, so I threw a couple sterilisation tablets in the bladder and would use it in an emergency.

Full of energy and young staff, the roadhouse was a polar opposite experience to all that preceded it. I enjoyed a warm pie as I weighed up the amount of water I needed to reach the next roadhouse, a mere 60 kms east. It was overcast, the heat was manageable, and the headwind a breeze compared to previous days. I was set on three litres. In theory, the lighter I weighed the faster I’d go.

Back on the road, it took only 30 minutes for the sun’s glare to pierce through the clouds and evaporate any sweat. It was a different type of heat than I’d felt before. I took small sips of water, reassuring myself that I’d be fine. Yet my body wasn’t so optimistic. I deteriorated quickly. Breathing became deeper and more erratic. Uncontrolled. I pressed on the brake shifter, but immediately took my hands off its metallic lever. It was scolding; a sharp realisation of the situation. Overcome with a suffocating heat, I felt panic build. I was being fast tracked to heat stroke. I knew I didn’t have enough water, but I had to reduce my body temperature quickly.

I found a shaded area, took my shirt off and plunged it in the water bladder. I then wrapped my face in it before putting it back on, and returning to the bike. The wind combined with a cold, wet t-shirt was an instant relief. However, it didn’t last long. The shirt was bone dry within minutes. I only had one litre of safe drinking water left, yet a few hours of treading tarmac remained. It wasn’t a great situation to be in. I came off the road again and dunked my shirt in the bladder. Again, I was dry within minutes. At that point, I knew I needed to ask for help. It was a realisation that didn’t sit well. The situation had come about due to a lack of planning and mis-judgement. Two or three more litres and I would have been fine. As the realisation sunk in, a caravan stopped and asked if I needed water. I rolled over to the couple and thanked them. Once I’d stopped, I instantly felt spaced out. It was like leaving a nightclub, stepping onto a quiet street outside, and realising your inebriated intoxication. I was acutely aware that I was not in a good state.

The couple refilled my bottles, even replacing one that was broken. “We’d rather give you our water than hear on the news that a Pom died cycling across the Nullarbor”, they said before continuing on with their journey. I could not have been more thankful.

Day 314 continued in Cycling Across the Nullarbor in Summer Part 3.


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