When I last wrote about the book tour, we were in Castlemaine, staying at a beautiful bush shack overlooking a dam. That was in mid October, and a lot has happened since then. But I want to start where I left off, with a quick story of someone we met during the Castlemaine event.
His name was Ged Rodgers, and he had just returned from cycling all the way around Australia, a journey of almost 14,000 kilometres. At 66 years old, he was a tall, lanky rebuttal to the common misconception that travelling long distances by bicycle is a feat best left to athletic twentysomethings.
But even Ged’s extraordinary adventure pales in comparison to the exploits of another cyclist I heard about. His name is Tilmann Waldthaler, and he’s an adventurer, journalist and photographer based in Gordanvale, Queensland, who has pedalled hundreds of thousands of kilometres around the world since setting off on his first big trip in 1977. (You can see a list of his trips here.)
Since the publication of Changing Gears, people have contacted me to tell their own stories of detouring from the rat race, and they’re not all cyclists. Some prefer a good long walk … for years on end. After our talk at the Shepparton Library, for example, we met a man who had walked around Australia, learning from the Indigenous peoples how to forage food (apparently he ate a lot of goanna). And at the very start of our tour, a man emailed me to say that when he was younger he quit his job in radio advertising, gave away all his possessions and wandered from Sydney to Cairns over the course of ten years. He now lives on a six-metre boat and survives on $4000 a year. The point I’m trying to make here – which Ged illustrates perfectly – is that taking off on an adventure in simple living isn’t exclusively for young idealists.
But back to a description of our own journey. Readers of the book will be pleased to know we’re still using our crappy Aldi tent, which performed admirably on the tour, despite enduring some very heavy downpours. Its bright yellow colour does make stealth-camping more difficult, but other than that it’s an excellent two-person shelter.
I thought this short excursion from Melbourne to Sydney would be easier than our epic bicycle trip last year, but it was actually more challenging because we had to stick to a rigid itinerary. When you’re travelling by bike you’re at the whim of the weather, and normally I’d wait out a storm and cycle once the sky cleared, but on the tour we had to keep pedalling through the rain – or into a headwind – to reach our destination on time.
What really sapped our strength, though, was the relentless schedule of media and events. I’ve lost count of how many times I posed in my trusty checkered-shirt-and-brown-jumper combo, an outfit chosen because it looked half decent even when drenched in sweat and caked with food scraps. (The checks seemed to distract from the filthiness, a very handy optical illusion.) Here we are posing for a Weekly Times story.
After the Shepparton event, Sophie decided to return home to our new apartment in Murundaka co-housing community, so I had to cycle the remaining one thousand kilometres solo. Sophie is the practical one in the relationship, and I was worried about how I’d fare on my own. I briefly considered tattooing on my hand the acronym WWSD (What Would Sophie Do?), which I would turn to for guidance in moments of dire need, such as erecting the tent in the rain. But I soon discovered that I’m actually more practical than I had thought, and there were no major mishaps.
In fact, I really enjoyed solo touring. Travelling alone gave me an elevated sense of freedom. I could wake up anytime I wanted! I could eat whatever I liked! I could take any route I chose! On the way to Wangaratta, I was enjoying the ride so much that I skipped lunch and just kept on pedalling. A strong westerly wind pushed me past golden wheat fields and into a brewing storm.
The border region was one of my favourite parts of the trip. I took the rail trail to Beechworth, a quaint heritage town north-east of Wangaratta, then cycled to Wodonga and stayed with a woman who had read the book and offered me a room for the night. The next day she took on the role of tour guide, cycling with me to the event at the Albury Library. She even helped tee up a big interview with the local paper, the Border Mail. Thanks Liz!
I wanted to do the whole trip by bike, but I screwed up the schedule and didn’t allow enough time to cycle to the Canberra event, so I had to take the train part of the way. After a well-attended talk at Paperchain Bookstore in Manuka, I rode south across the Monaro Plains, buffeted by freezing headwinds.
It was early November, but when I arrived in Nimmitabel I was told that it had actually snowed that morning. I wasn’t expecting such chilly weather and hadn’t packed enough warm clothes, so I put on my rain jacket and pedalled through the drizzle to Brown Mountain, where the road descends about one thousand metres to the floor of the Bega Valley.
Last year we cycled up this mountain, reaching the top in the record slow time of three hours, 53 minutes and 22 seconds. This time I cycled down, and it only took 29 minutes. You can guess which way was more fun.
Visiting the Bega Valley gave me a chance to catch up with old friends. I stayed at Stroudover Cottage with Patrick Reubinson, the chef behind the Bemboka Banquet, and he baked me a pie decorated with the image of dogs chasing a cyclist. I also visited RED café, caught up with locals John Champagne and Carolyn Wells (another person I interviewed for Changing Gears), and stayed with a man who lived in an eco-housing development called BEND.
Up until this point in the tour, I’d been averaging 40 to 50 kilometres a day on mostly flat roads. From Bega I had to pedal up the south coast of New South Wales, averaging 70 to 90 kilometres a day between events. My terrain map of the area was wrinkled with sharp ridges and steep gullies. I set off along the road to Bermagui, and was surprised to see another cyclist ahead of me, weighed down by four panniers and a backpack.
His name was Christian Peter, and he was a Swiss tourist on his way from Melbourne to Sydney. His bike had an internal Rohloff hub and was incredibly efficient, so he had no problem keeping up with me on the steep hills. In fact, about 20 minutes after meeting we encounted a gradient that forced me off my bike, whereas Christian managed to pedal all the way to the top.
Christian and I travelled together for about ten days. Although he was very fit and had been on short cycle touring trips before, this was his first extended tour. I tried to teach him what I could about long-haul cycling. One day he woke up and said, “I have a problem. Blisters!” so I introduced him to the wonder of anti-friction cream, or, as Sophie and I call it, “butt cream”.
Unfortunately for him, Christian also picked up some of my bad habits. Before meeting me, he tended to wake at five or six am and do most of his cycling in the morning, when the weather is cool and the wind is generally light. I tend to sleep in, snooze until the tent becomes unbearably hot, and then leave late, cursing loudly at my laziness and lack of discipline. This soon became our routine, and we both suffered the full brunt of the midday sun. I like to think that by subjecting him to sunburn and heatstroke I was giving him a taste of “the real Australia”, but really I’m just a bad influence.
Christian also taught me a thing or two. When we arrived in Ulladulla it started pouring rain, and we still had about ten kilometres to go to Milton. As an Australian, I’m used to cycling in relatively dry weather, and the heaviness of this downpour made me nervous. Would drivers spot us through the sheets of cascading water? Would my tyres slip on the wet asphalt? But Christian came from a much wetter climate, and he said, “It’s just rain. No big deal.” So we set off into the storm, and it was actually a lot of fun. I felt like a toddler suddenly given permission to go stomping through puddles.
That night we stayed at the home of Amanda Findley, a Greens councillor for Shoalhaven City Council. She cooked us a delicious meal, and I spent the next morning on her verandah, fixing her bike. Here we are before setting off again.
From there Christian and I took the Princes Highway north. On the way to Kiama we found ourselves on an extremely dangerous double-lane highway with road works along one side. There was almost no shoulder, and no chance of veering left if a truck came too close. We pushed our bikes up the steep slope, scared for our lives, and then finally reached the top.
Last time Sophie and I tried to cycle into Sydney she was nearly hit by a car, so this time I decided to ask for local knowledge. I put a call out on the Facebook site I Love Sydney Bike Lanes & Cycle Ways asking for the safest route from Cronulla to Newtown, and I soon had a half dozen to choose between. Armed with this advice, Christian and I were able to pass through the outer suburbs on a network of bike paths. Instead of being sucked into the slipstream of a truck on a busy highway, we cruised past mangroves, bush reserves, rivers and parklands, breathing in fresh, clean air. It was a wonderful way to enter the city. Sydney, you have redeemed yourself.
Our final event was a live interview at Gleebooks with Craig Reucassel from satirical group The Chaser. He was an excellent questioner – funny, but without shying away from serious discussion. Too often my book gets pigeonholed as a “quirky travel story”, especially by commercial radio announcers, who seem to think that exploring the complexities of consumerism will bore listeners. But deep discussion about environmental issues can still be witty and engaging, as Craig proved on the night.As you can see, Costa showed up to say hi and get his book signed. The next day we went to an event he was hosting to raise awareness of proposed open-cut mines in the Tarkine. I’m always astonished by the amount of support that Costa gives to these causes. Most of them are voluntary, I expect, but he still finds the time to do them.
And that brings us to the end of the two-month pedal-powered tour. Here are the final figures:
3 cyclists (including my new pal Christian)
1 crappy Aldi tent (still going strong)
Time to rest my legs for a while.