Brisbane to Sydney by bicycle in 2001: Day 1 – Rathdowney to Casino

Back in the simpler pre 9/11 days of April 2001, myself and some mates decided to cycle from Brisbane to Sydney. We allowed two weeks for the journey. Three of us, Grant, Glenn and me, were in for the full haul. A fourth member, Hugh, would join us at the end of the first week. At the time, I kept a long diary of daily events. Later I shared that diary with friends but subsequently forgot about it. Among countless changes of computers through the years I no longer had a soft copy and could not find the hard copy among my poorly-organised files. So I’m grateful to the work mainly of Glenn but also of Grant who turned their hard copies back into digital versions. Glenn put the story of each day on his website, and I’d thought I’d do the same. Here is how the two weeks unfolded beginnng on Saturday, April 28, 2001. Although we’d advertised it as a Brisbane to Sydney ride, for logistical reasons we cut 100km off the course. Read on.

***

capture
The Rathdowney Information Centre. The original pre-digital era photo of Grant and I standing in front of the building is lost in time.

We knew where we were going to, but did we know where we were starting from?

Of course Grant “Grunty” Pearce, a stickler for the truth, would always tell people we met along the way that we were going from Rathdowney to Sydney. What’s Up downie? Rathdowney was a small pleasant town at the bottom of the Queensland – NSW border ranges. And of course Grunty was right. Because here we were, dressed up in cyclist combat costume and getting our picture taken outside the Rathdowney Information Centre. The information I was getting clearly wasn’t Brisbane. Brisbane is a further one hundred kilometres north up the road. But given the distance we were about to travel and the relative anonymity of Rathdowney, I assumed people would forgive us a cheat start and so I preferred to tell people we were cycling from Brisbane to Sydney. Brisbane. That’s where we live so that’s where we start. There was another problem. This morning my head feels like an abattoir after a hard day’s slaughter and as I pose for the photo I feel the cold remorse of the bicycle saddle and sense the shiver of the upcoming hills. I am getting ready to dodge for cover just before my brain explodes.

We were drinking in Brisbane last night. Heavily. And that’s why we are feeling very sad and seedy as we set off today. There was a rare night of free beer on offer and Grunty and I both helped ourselves to a skinful and then some more. Serendipity had deemed that a work celebration was to be held the Friday night before our Saturday start. Nothing to do with the bike ride, but its timing was auspicious, if a little dangerous as it now proved to be. I think back to last night, perhaps I shouldn’t have had that ninth beer. Or the tenth. Or the several after that.

Never mind. Last night’s base camp was at the halfway point of Jimboomba, 50kms out of Brisbane and home of Malcolm “Malool” Fong and his girlfriend Rebecca. Malool had been indulging in the free beer with us and Rebecca bravely drove into town late at night to pick us up. She had to put up with three loud drunks for the hour long return trip to Jimboomba. Two of whom were elated with the prospect of two weeks holiday cycling a thousand kilometres between two Australian east coast cities. Not that Rebecca would have been jealous.

When we got to Malool’s place, we quickly faded and slept the shattered sleep of the sloshed. While we snoozed, Rebecca took the opportunity to sneakily put on the “spokie dokies” on our bikes. Initially she tiptoed around as she carefully placed them on the wheels but when she accidentally knocked against one of the bikes she realised that we were in a catatonic alcohol-induced stupor and we would not have woken if she had let a herd of trombone-playing elephants maraud through the kitchen. Okie doakie, what are spokie dokies? Brightly coloured decorations for the spokes, of course. Soon both wheels of our bikes were festooned with orange, blue, red and yellow decorations complete with shiny little moons and smiling stars. The spokie dokies slid and rattled when the bike was led at walking pace, but centrifugal force kept them in place when cycling and the colours merged kaleidoscopically in the whizz. I grew to respect and like my spokie dokies.

I woke up around 8:30am on Saturday and inspected the damage. It was severe. The head was feeling battered and bruised, my stomach was a bottle of Sarajevo 92 and my hands were decidedly shaky. I took an emergency cold shower in an attempt to rouse myself into action. I had to act decisively as there was one hundred kilometres of cycling to be negotiated today. The shower stung me awake and made me feel slightly more human. The rehabilitation process continued with the smell of sizzling bacon. Malool and Rebecca were also up and about, preparing a big breakfast for the travellers.

Grunty and I are normally big eaters but the presence of first day nerves (and hostile innards) meant we were barely able to finish our breakfasts. I finally had enough courage to look at my bike. I didn’t notice the bright spokie dokies that splattered the wheels. In my unobservant state I knew something was amiss but couldn’t quite focus on what it was. “Did someone clean my bike?” I asked dumbly. Rebecca and Malool laughed and assumed I was joking. How could I fail to see the ornaments? I couldn’t figure out why they were laughing but I put it out of my mind as there was too much recovery to concentrate on. A quick look at Grunty made me feel better — he looked as bad as I felt. I would have mutually sick company for the ride.

So this was Day One. The first day out on the road. The idea was three years old but until this day the Brisbane to Sydney bike trip had never made it past the front door of the pub. Today the pub was nowhere to be seen, the panniers were packed and the bikes were strapped onto Malool’s car. No going back now. Two weeks to get to Sydney by pedal power alone. Once we get to Rathdowney of course. It could be done a lot quicker than two weeks. A serious cyclist from our office was almost disdainful when we told him how long we were taking to do the trip. Eight days, he reckoned. But this was supposed to be a holiday too. We had worked out our itinerary and we were in no hurry. Two weeks with two rest days would suit us just fine.

We arrived in Rathdowney mid morning. The weather was fine, not too warm or cold and barely a flicker of breeze. Ideal cycling conditions. The hills to the state border loomed ominously behind the town. Malool and Rebecca, presumably taking pity on us, offer us one last chance to do the sensible thing and return to Brisbane by car. Reluctantly, we refuse the Governor’s pardon. Grunty and I ceremonially fill up our water bottles. We carefully place the heavy panniers on the bike rack. There is a cautious prod here to the front tyre, a gentle jab there to the back tyre. We and the tyres are pumped up and ready to go. I summon up the memory of what a smile looks like for a cameo appearance in the aforementioned photograph of the boys at the starting post. There is time for a quick prayer of hope to Our Lady of Ghisallo, the patron saint of cyclists (She won the Lourdes stage of the Tour de France in 1745) and we are away. For a while my headache disappears, replaced by an awesome feeling of adventure with the delicious prospect of two weeks of cycling to come.

There’s no time for dilly-dallying in the delightful late Autumn weather because we have an appointment to keep at the New South Wales border. There, in about an hour’s time we are scheduled to meet the third member of our expedition Glenn “Muddy” Mead. That lies ahead. In order for us to leave Queensland behind we take the road built by charity, we are not-so-gladiators sent to the Lions Road. The supposed ‘short cut’ between Beaudesert in Queensland and Kyogle in NSW built by the Lions clubs of the two border towns. Fine and short if you are driving but hell if you are pumping on two wheels. There is a big climb to the border up to eastern Australia’s spinal column, the Great Dividing Range.

We see the border in the distance, it’s where the rainforest starts on the other side. Here in Queensland it’s all bleak pastoral land crystallised with a raw beauty, good for sheep and not much else, crisscrossed many times by the Running Creek on, funnily enough, the Running Creek Road. Although the Queenslanders helped build the Lions Road, they preferred to call it something else. The official Lions Road starts at the border. Still some way away.

Back in the present the road so far is lumpy; there are as many downs as ups. We come to a menacing bright red roadsign that warns motorists with dodgy clutches and cyclists with dodgy motors that there is a “very steep climb ahead next 250 metres”. Count ‘em. Only two hundred and fifty of the buggers. But I get to know to know each of these metres intimately. There is much grinding and pumping the cobwebs from my knees as I strain every muscle to climb the hill. There is fleeting pleasure as I get to the top. It is dissipated by the knowledge a bigger hill lies ahead. A few weeks ago, I had done a recce of the Lions Road (ok, ok, the Running Creek Road) by car and noted well the two red roadsigns warning of severe hills.

We successfully negotiated the baby bump and the second one was the mother hill. I had warned Grunty of the two big hills and at each little lump in the road he hopefully asked me “was this one of them?”. But such a hill could not simply be wished away. Finally we saw it, our hearts sunk, we didn’t need the road sign to tell us what lay ahead. It was a bloody great ski jump, pinched from some unsuspecting Winter Olympic venue and set down here by whimsical belligerent gods in a remote wilderness. The hill was monstrous, audacious and downright obscene.

The border post, perched serenely at the summit, taunted us from a great height. We gasped involuntarily at the sight. The bright red sign did not lie: “Very Steep Climb ahead next 1 kilometre” it warned us. The last kilometre of Queensland was not going to be taken lightly. After a pause for breath, I set off first, determined to get this obstacle out of the way as quickly as possible. I quickly decelerated and was down in the smallest ‘granny gears’ almost immediately. The gradient struck a devilish deal with gravity and hung at anobtuse angle off the ground. I managed somehow to stay upright for 650 metres of bonejarring pain. The delightful weather was now our hot enemy. One last heave-ho before I conceded defeat for the first time. The panniers felt as if they were packed with leaden bibles. I was forced into the ignominy of walking my bike. I felt my grandmother would be ashamed of me, if she were alive and a very fit cyclist given to provoking.

After a brief respite taking in the splendid view back into the valley below, I found a hidden pocket of energy and got back on board the bike in a wobbly fashion. But my pocket was ridden with holes, the pain was too soon and too intense and I had to dismount a second time a mere hundred metres from the border gate. I trudged my bike and its bibles wearily over the line. Welcome to New South Wales. You are.

My hangover had receded, too many other pains now clamoured for attention. The sleepy border guard (he is there to check agricultural produce not passports) is probably well used to the passing parade of mad half-dead cyclists and he barely took his eye off his flickering black-and-white portable TV to acknowledge my sodden presence. He certainly didn’t bat an eyelid at my frenzied request for a water refill. “Pure rainwater” he told me it was and it was refreshing and cold in my massacred throat.

I sat down in the sun, pulled off my sweaty shirt and attempted to revive myself with lashings of purest rainwater. The border guard’s dog ambled over to me and commenced licking the profuse sweat from my back. I was too tired to shoo him away. He wagged his tailed in doggish satisfaction as he drank happily from my bodily fluids as quickly as I replenished them.

Afier a few minutes I could see a bedraggled ghostly figure inching up the hill. It was Grunty grunting and groaning. He hobbled over the line much to the delight of the sweat-licking dog, anticipating a new thirst quencher. He plonked himself down next to me wordlessly. Grunty filled up with rainwater; dog filled up with Grunty.

We had conquered the first hurdle. The first “Triangle”, even. But now is not the time to talk of Triangles.

Where is Glenn? Not here at the actual border. Our meeting place is actually a few kilometres further on at the picnic spot called the Border Loop. Here there is a side road, which looks out onto the spot where the Brisbane to Sydney railway line loops the loops in an artistic figure eight so that the trains can climb those same damn hills.

One week later, Hugh Breslin our fourth trepid traveller would take that very train to join us at the halfway mark to Sydney. But now is not the time to talk of Hugh either. Grunty and I cycle on the couple of kays to the Loop but no Muddy is to be found. The picnic spot is empty except for a man and his young daughter. The man comes up to me and says, “Glenn’s not here”. I reply unthinking “I know” before I realise that this unknown guy must know Glenn and why he is supposed to be here. “You know Glenn, then?” I ask. “Yes” he replies “I work with him”.

Mike introduces himself as a keen cyclist who would have loved to do this trip with us but he is recovering from an injury. He can only watch enviously (if only he knew) at us and our Grand Plans. Glenn is late for his appointment but we are not complaining, happy to take this opportunity to fully recover from our border ordeal.

Glenn arranged to meet us here because of a clashing appointment that morning in Brisbane. None of us had desperately wanted to include the outer suburbs of Brisbane in our ride. When we spoke of starting in Rathdowney, he suggested he join us at the Border at midday so that he could meet a commitment to train his son’s under seven soccer side that morning.

Finally two big four wheel drive cars one complete with attached bicycle arrives in the car park and its safe to assume that this is Glenn’s entourage. Out of the cars pile a whole bunch of people, there is Glenn, his wife Donna, Glenn’s mum, dad and grandmother and two of Glenn’s kids, Luke aged 7 and Milly aged 3 (the third sibling Madeline has sensibly boycotted the whole event and stayed home with her other grandparents).

After introductions, Donna produces some lifesaving ice cold sports drinks, a medicine which Grunty and I knock back feverishly. Donna will also provide a second useful function. She and the kids will be staying with us on the first night in the town of Casino. This means she is able to transport our panniers, those biblical deadweight panniers, to the motel giving us a burden-free cycle for the rest of the day.

Muddy tells me his son’s under sevens soccer team won 4-0 so we are heading off on a winning note. We only took what we wore and a few essential bike repair elements. And now we were three.

Off we go, negotiating the heart-starting 600 metres back up a steep hill to the Lions road from the car park. After that it’s a freewheel down the Border Range National Park on the NSW side. Not too fast lest one of those hair-raising corners claims me as a victim but joyously effortless all the same. The only hassle is my loosely strapped bike helmet is dragged by the wind off the back of my head almost choking me as it settles around the back of my throat.

Elation takes hold as we glide through the rainforest. At the bottom of the hill we pass our first shop without stopping. A bad mistake. Within minutes the first pangs of hunger strike and soon it’s gnawing away at me. There is a long way to go yet. It was past lpm when we recommenced and we had roughly 4 hours of late April daylight to get to Casino, still 75kms away.

After more sylvan scenery, we finally leave the den of the Lions Road and rejoin the main highway, the Summerland Way. We are two months late to gain a passport to summer but the weather was pleasant enough. But now we were to get our first glimpse of what was to become a regular travelling partner for the remaining journey — the Southerly breezes. A headwind hit almost immediately on the Summerland way. This was bad planning on my part. In my research for the ride I was somehow convinced the prevailing winds were favourable Northerlies, pushing us along to our destination. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Almost every day for the next two weeks, we would become intimately acquainted with the breeze and we would need the dedication of dentists as we cycled continuously into the teeth of fierce headwinds.

We felt it in our faces as we hit the first hint of civilisation at Wiangaree. A town where one horse would have looked plentiful, it did have one crucial ingredient, a general store. And they sold hot food. Hot greasy food, the ideal post hangover cure-all. Just the salve my depleted body needed. I greedily devoured their fish and chips as Grunty and Muddy made hay with the shop’s fine selection of meat pies. Guilt-free fare for long distance cyclists.

There, we nonchalantly tell the proprietor that we are cycling to Sydney. “From Rathdowney” added Grunty. That was ok, the locals here knew where Rathdowney was. I spend a few minutes admiring the pretty collection of Asian orchids and the local history exhibits in the store. Replenished we set off again, our destination and first night’s camp at the quaintly named town of Casino.

We were soon at the doorstep of Kyogle, the first centre of sustained inhabitance we’ve seen on our journey.

We weren’t much of an army (even if we were now marching on our full stomachs as well as our wheels) who invaded Kyogle that day. It wouldn’t have mattered. We would still have stormed the town if we were of a mind. There was no one to stop us. Kyogle was declared dead late on Saturday afternoon. All doors were shut, traffic non-existent and the shopping street was deserted. Kyogle was taking the weekend very seriously, it had put its shades on and taken a collective siesta.

We however had a long way to go before we could avail of a nightcap so we pressed on through the town not stopping to check out its apparent indolence. There was another 40kms of headwinds and two hours cycling to do before we could relax in Casino.

Our bodies were starting to complain and it was only fitting we were heading to the self proclaimed “Beef Capital” for sustenance. We ploughed on down the open roads among endless miles of sheep and cattle properties and the ever present but silent Brisbane-Sydney railway line which hugged the side of the road for dear life in the absence of any trains to comfort. In a desperate bid to relieve my tired legs and strained brain I cycle on ahead of the other two. Daylight was becoming an issue for me, darkening by five thirty at this time of year and it would be black by six. I didn’t want to be on the highway at night without lights.

Then with only 17 kilometres between me and a soothing hot bath, pffuffff went my day. The honour of getting the first puncture of the expedition went to me. I quickly ground to a halt. As I am well ahead of the other two there is plenty of time for a few well chosen expletives. But no panic. Soon I am phlegmatically unloading the panniers and removing the offending tube from the back wheel as I await Grunty with the spare tube.

Soon enough they were in sight and even sooner they were here and off the bikes to inspect the damage. First there are a few well deserved laughs at my expense before a glance at the fast receding sun tells us its time to get down to business to replace the tube. There’s a problem. The tube is the wrong size for my bike. I did have a tube that was the proper size but it was stowed away safely in my panniers well ahead of me in Casino. Grant and Glenn’s mountain bikes have 26 inch tube diameters; my hybrid bike is a 27 incher. We forgot this important consideration when we decided to take only one spare.

We try to jam the tube in anyway. Seconds later it inevitably goes Pffffffff. We can’t pump a round tube into a bigger round hole. It was time to surrender and declare my opening battle lost. I would have to suffer the indignity of a lift for the last 17 kilometres of the day. The guys would ride on to Casino and come back in Glenn’s four wheel drive to collect me. Nothing for me to do but sit down and wait. And wait.

At least I am near a bus stop at a road junction. I wheel the bike to the bus stop where I have a seat and some protection from the buffeting of the breeze. There is also the prospect of the occasional spot of people watching as cars negotiated the junction in various directions.

An hour passes in turgid fashion. The sky was darkening and it was becoming a bit cold too. I calculated that the lads would have reached Casino and the rescue mission would soon be here. It was almost completely dark when a 4 wheel drive flashes past. It stops a few hundred metres down the road and does a u-turn. Help has arrived. To my surprise, its neither Glenn nor Grant but Donna behind the wheel with the two kids in the back.

We struggle in the enveloping gloom to strap the sick bike onto the back of the car. Soon we are gliding on Casino in a much faster speed than I had earlier anticipated. Donna told me what had happened. It was 5:30pm and getting increasingly dark where she was waiting at the motel. She thought something might be amiss so she set off to look for us. She found the weary lads just outside Casino delayed by my misadventure. They told her they were fine (just plain tired) but I needed attention. So they cycled onto the motel and now Donna was here to save my deflated bacon.

I thanked her for her rescue mission. I felt disappointed I couldn’t complete the first day but I was grateful for the support vehicle this one day. It would be our only such privilege in two weeks. Donna and the kids would part ways with us tomorrow and we would be on our own from there on. At last we approached the comforting lights of Casino.

We go through the town centre and cross the Richmond River to our motel on the southern side of the town. The swimming pool looks immediately inviting. However Glenn, our welcoming committee, tells me that he has already sampled its wares and the water is bloody cold. That won’t stop me. First I unpack the bike from the car. I find the motel room where a shagged out and supine Grunty is soaking up the rest and idly watching the news on TV.

We examine the back tyre of my bike. There is a major centre of wear and tear on the tyre which is in desperate need of replacement or it will cause the tube to blow again tomorrow, correct size or not. But tomorrow is Sunday, day of rest for others and where are we going to find a bike shop open in Casino on Sunday?

Temporarily I put this problem out of my mind and I get into my boardshorts. The pool is calling. I test a toe into the temperature-challenged water. It’s cold alright. Never mind, I dive in regardless and send shock waves through my system. Brrrrrr. It’s just about survivable.

Thus encouraged, Glenn’s boy Luke soon joins me for a splash and I play a game of monsters of the deep with Mudster Jr to keep the body moving. Ten minutes later I am feeling refreshed enough and I hop out and beeline directly for the shower.

After standing spellbound for ages under its delicious hot spray, I feel life start to creep back into me.

I am soon ready to investigate what Casino has on offer. There is no eponymous palace of gambling though the pubs have the ubiquitous pokies. The town was named for Monte Cassino where the American troops were stalled in their advance north through the Italian mountains in the Second World War.

Hopefully their delay is not an omen for me, but I am struggling to visualise any similarities between the rugged Italian hilltown and its Australian pastoral flatland counterpart. Casino is, as the motel literature points out, claims to be “the beef capital” (though perhaps the location of the bovine parliament might be disputed by Rockhampton among other places) so a steak would seem the order of the day.

We were too early for Beef Week, which was hitting Casino in a big way in mid May. We would have to cram a whole week of beefeating in one night. Our weary limbs are thankful for the car and we drive into the centre of town. Slap bang in the centre is a bike shop. It’s closed of course. And it won’t be open tomorrow.

We chat with the guy in the service station next door. He knows the bike shop proprietor, a chap named Tony Keogh. Unfortunately Mr Keogh lives about 20kms out of town. The guys reckon I should give him a call but I feel it’s highly unlikely he’d be too keen to come into town on Sunday morning just to sell me a tyre. Besides I don’t believe it was enough of an emergency situation to warrant such drastic action.

I formulated the alternative plan brewing inside me. We would move the stricken tyre from the heavier back wheel (bearing the main weight of me and the pannier bags), strap it up somehow and transfer it to the lighter front wheel. We would then move the sturdier tyre to the back wheel. If for whatever reason that wouldn’t work then I would simply remain holed up in Casino for the day (a la americain), check out its Sunday offerings, then get the tyre on Monday morning before trying to catch up with the guys over the next few, big (gulp!) days. That was tomorrow’s worry, for now we were ravenous.

Long distance cycling does wonders for an appetite and now I was on the lookout for an edible horse-between-two-mattresses. The service station guy does his tourist bit for the town and recommends the nearby Hotel Cecil as a good spot for steaks. We need little persuasion. Inside, the restaurant area is full, a good and bad sign. The place must be reasonable to attract the throngs but would there be room at the inn and a spare table of six for us?

Luckily the pub is cavernous, there are other dining rooms. We find some floor space and a table and finally enough chairs so that we don’t require the assistance of music to see who gets a seat. Straight to the bar to order a round of schooners of beer for the thirsty cyclists. And my hangover? What hangover? It was well dissipated after the many events of the day.

The beers go down very well but we are tired and hungry. The steaks emerge from the kitchen and they are suitably large and frightening and they taste just fine. The kids are yawning and irritable and so are the male adults. We are done for the day.

Donna takes Grant and the kids back in the car. Glenn and I fancy the walk back through the quiet township and we hear the loud flowing rapids of the Richmond River invisible in the gloom below the bridge. We briefly discuss the day in a monosyllabic manner but it’s a mostly silent walk. Finally it’s the welcome sanctuary of the bed after a few ablutions and it feels good.

Welcoming me home, really. It feels like I’ve been sleeping in this bed all my life. Perhaps I have been or maybe I just dreamed I have been. I certainly cannot recall a single iota of dreamstuff to record. It was deep dark black sleep with the occasional lament of a weary limb and the odd frisson of the memory of my tyre dilemma. I wake up in a minor panic with a vision of me marooned on the road 50 kilometres from the nearest town with just a broken bicycle for company. I replace this vision with less distressing thoughts and sleep slowly descends again.

Read on for Day 2

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