My cartoonist Bret Currie sent in a cartoon to me this morning as he does every Friday morning for the Saturday edition of the paper. They usually raise a smile but initially I was a bit troubled by this one on Australia Day (which was the day before). My first reaction was dislike, this went well beyond caricature and into stereotype. Normally I put his cartoon straight up on our Facebook page but I hesitated this morning.
Then I looked at it again and smiled and realised Bret had achieved his objective. People will like it, I concluded. Plus he was making a sharp point about Australian cultural values. I immediately put it up on our Facebook page with the caption “Typing this very quietly in case anyone is suffering a ‘reaction’ to Australia Day, as Bret Currie infers in this week’s cartoon.” And 12 hours later there hasn’t been a single negative reaction.
Perhaps because in the end that’s all Australia Day is, a day for partying with food, drink and sport. With those values it doesn’t matter what date it is held. I have long held January 26 is inappropriate and Australia Day should be the fourth Monday in January. It would still occasionally fall on January 26 though it wouldn’t solve the problem Bret points out about fair dinkum sickies the day after. But it is less political charged than having it on January 26 all the time.
Just how politically charged the current date is noted by some of the rot I saw today from government members when asked whether the date should change. Barnaby Joyce was stupid-in-chief. He not only attacked the idea of change but those wanting change. “I’m just sick of these people who every time they want to make us feel guilty about it,” he said. Joyce said the reason people want the date to change is not because it was wrong but simply they wanted the white Brits who still loved January 26 to feel guilty. But having said it’s all about me, he then went Full Metal Barnaby:
“They don’t like Christmas, they don’t like Australia Day, they’re just miserable … and I wish they’d crawl under a rock and hide for a little bit.”
Eh? They don’t like Christmas??
Who doesn’t like Christmas? I like Christmas, Barnaby, and if you mean the vast majority of Indigenous people who support a change, well I couldn’t answer for them, but I’d suspect the answer is a) actually, they do like Christmas and b) it has bugger all to do with Australia Day.
But “they’re just miserable”. It’s obvious that the “they” Joyce is zooming in on is not Aboriginal people but the green inner city left. Indeed they are one constituency that mostly wants the date changed. But they are not alone. Is it just them he wants to crawl under a rock and hide for a little bit or must all of us seek temporary refuge somewhere?
Meanwhile Joyce was warming to his theme. The idea, he said, “of moving the date away from January 26 is political correctness gone mad and those pushing for change should instead go to work on the public holiday.” Political correctness gone mad is a slogan with zero meaning, Barnaby. And just because you might be taking it easy, you forget many of us are already working on the public holiday. Besides, those with the day off would happy swap it for another day. “Today (Australia 26) is a day about celebration,” Joyce concluded, but he never addressed why it had to be that date, because that wasn’t his argument.
This deflection of argument was also perfected by Eric Abetz. Like Joyce, Abetz ignored the Aboriginal arguments to concentrate on his real enemy: “left-wing activists and latte-sipping apologists.” Abetz is simply wrong here, many on the right see moving Australia Day off January 26 is a necessary step on our road to true independence. As Ian Macfarlane “It’s about healing a wound, drawing a line, getting on with the really important issues facing our indigenous communities.” As for the latte-sipping apologists, this is another nonsense phase beloved by the right that somehow implies political menace into dainty coffee drinking.
While presumably sipping something other than coffee, Senator Abetz said Australians “celebrate living in the freest and most aspirational nation in the world”. Well maybe so, but why can freedom and aspiration only be celebrated on that date?
It took Tasmanian Aboriginal activist Michael Mansell to remind why January 26 is the date. “The only significance of that date is the coming to Australia of white people,” he said.
What Joyce and Abetz really hate is they are being made to feel guilty for their triumphalism. It is the usurper’s complex that makes the act the aggrieved one when called out on misbehaviour.
There is no doubt January 26 was an important date for Australians as it marked the beginning of change of ownership of a continent over the next 130 years. If that is what we are celebrating then stop taking a sickie and admit it. In the meantime, change the date.
There are few things more magical than a swim first thing in the morning. It is heart balm for the day. I assess the damage and conclude that I have come to no harm as a result of alcohol consumed last night. I am glad I hit the wall at the time I did. After a decent splash I hop out and return to the caravan.
Today is a Thursday. It has no Day number for it has been released from the schedule and set free to wonder where it will. As long as it checks in for parole this afternoon at Trial Bay Gaol.
We do have one piece of housekeeping to attend to today. We need a new house to stay in thanks to tonight’s lockout at this here caravan park. But ﬁrst breakfast calls. We walk up the hill to the coffee shop on the corner. We sit outside preening in the sunshine and doing good justice to strong coffee and egg and bacon mufﬁns.
A slow stroll back to the park where the superintendent was becoming a bit worried in case we might not be moving out prior to checkout curfew. Indeed there is a glowering cleaning lady armed with her mop waiting ﬁercely for us outside our van. She is itching to get stuck into repairing our damage as soon as we are packed up. We bid fond farewell to this lovely park (if not its Amazonian maid) and set off in search of the town’s secondary caravan park.
It is not quite on the bay, hidden behind the creek. The view is not as instantly inspiring as the other place but it too has its camouﬂaged charms. The site of our caravan is directly overlooking the creek and it has an element of relaxation all its own. We would soon have the measure of the place. As we checked in, we told the owner that we had to move out of its competitor’s park. He was the one who told us the ﬁrst park had an expiry date of eight years before being set free again. He couldn’t help inserting a little bit of malicious glee into his voice as he told us. I couldn’t help but approve of the decision to close it. It was a lovely place to stay but I think it is more important to let it return to a more natural state, a state that does not necessarily have a part for humans in it.
I think of all the magniﬁcent trees I saw in the forests near Bowraville. These fabulous photosynthesisers have done a damn ﬁne job as custodians of the planet’s life. If only we could say the same.
We collapse in our new home and vegetate gently on the veranda with the help of books and today’s paper. An hour passes silently apart from the chortling and chirping of birds and the low murmur of the sea somewhere behind the creek.
Then the ﬁrst spurt of energy today, Two of us decide on a trip to the mouth of the Macleay. Muddy slip slides away towards his appointment with his masseuse. Grunty and I take the therapy of the bicycle. No panniers on board as we set off over the hill at the back of town and onto the wetlands road to the river. The road meanders a while before it ﬁnally arrives at the boathouse on a wide section of the river. The river ﬂows by in regal fashion either side of a big delta island. Pelicans patrol the banks searching for careless ﬁsh.
But we cannot see the mouth of the river and we double back towards another turnoff. This is the dirt road to the estuary itself. And at the end of the road, we come to the pier at the rivermouth. It is quite majestic here. The weather has once again kept its promises with us and is delivering another beautiful ﬁne day. The riverbirds are squawking noisily and swapping gossip with their seafaring brethren. We see a small ﬁshing boat cutting the umbilical chord of the Macleay and leaping into the dangerous clash and clatter of the ocean waves as it takes its chances out on the Paciﬁc. It chugs away from the shore in pipe smoking swagger. And probably no little relief for having successfully negotiated the treacherous sandbanks of the seaway.
Back along the beach we see South West Rocks a couple of kilometres away. Wait a minute! That has got to be the most direct way back. There is a creek to cross at the end of the beach but I’m sure that the footbridge I’ve seen can help us out. Did I mention the footbridge? We saw it as we cycled from one caravan park to the other and presumed it links the town with the beach beyond the creek. I didn’t realise it was going to come in so handy. Only problem is we have to haul ourselves and our bicycles down off the high rocky breakwater and then check out if the sand is rideable. I get down gingerly with my machine and test it out. It’s ﬁne, the wheels keep moving. Then I assist Grunty down with his bike and we are away. The first proper beach ride of the trip. Only two kilometres of sand to traverse but it is truly a species of magic. The waves crash in my eardrums, the sun spreads warmth on my back and my eyes bask in the glory of the spray and the sand-dunes.
I speed up to give vent to the pleasures of this god. All too soon I am at the end of the beach staring at the breakwater on the town side of the creek. Grunty arrives in hot pursuit. We have to get off and lift our bikes over the soft sand to ﬁnd a way off the beach. Soon we are on a walking trail and lo and behold there is the footbridge right ahead of us. A splendid way to get back into town. After all this energy, it is deﬁnitely time for a swim.
We cruise back to Horseshoe Bay and have an enjoyable splurge in the waves as the clock ticks inexorably towards lunchtime. I couldn’t help seeing the pub every time I looked up the hill towards town. Glenn joins us on the beach and he is re-invigorated and singing the praises of his massage.
It is time for us to chant the Psalmer’s Arms and we march up the hill to salute the ﬂag. Inside the pub, lunch turns out to be a slow leisurely affair. A couple of hours saunter by in a discussion of South West Rocks’ bread and circuses.
Finally its time to head back to our caravan to collect our energies and take stock of our affairs. It is past three o’ clock so we had better get a move if we were going to perform our one real venture for the day. We hop on our bikes and head towards Arakoon lying 10 kilometres away and home of Trial Bay Gaol. The story of Australian penal institutions has always been a popular one to tell and many Australian towns have turned their old hoosegows into museums so that they can enlighten us with their grim stories. Trial Bay Gaol was founded in 1886 to satisfy two disparate aims. A Mr Moriarty, the local chief engineer, wanted to build a breakwater to provide safe harbour on the Macleay river and a Mr MacLean, a sheriff and prison inspector, wanted to establish a reform prison. Trial Bay Gaol was the answer to Moriarty and MacLean’s separate prayers.
Conditions here were considerably more lenient than in contemporary Australian prisons and the prisoners were convenient cheap labour to build the breakwater. The prison’s ﬁrst incarnation last until 1903. But it was to have a second life when it reopened in 1915 and for three years it served to assuage local hysteria as a camp for German internees during the First World War. Whatever about its sinister story, we certainly can’t fault the views as we circle in on Arakoon.
Overhanging the bay, the sandstone gaol blends in with the scenery. Above the prison are the cliffs of the headland, while out to sea the Paciﬁc magniﬁcently holds court over all. We dismount the bikes outside the prison and almost immediately a sense of the sadness of history pounced on me. I was barely aware of this as we passed the gate and paid our money to enter.
We are steered upstairs into the old ofﬁces which now contains the prison’s museum. We wander through the exhibits and the photographs. From the prison’s first lifetime we see the list of its inmates often with a brief description of their status. Some are denoted as ‘freethinkers’, that peculiar 19th century version of the political prisoner. Others are more contemptuously described as having ‘intelligence nil’ though it is not made abundantly clear whether they are referring to staff or inmates.
We do see the salaries paid out to the staff and its individual variety reﬂects the complicated hierarchical structure of the prison’s ofﬁcialdom. There is a list of escapees some of whom were still at large at the time of writing.
Then we move on to the section describing the second phase of the prison’s lifetime. There are pictures of the Germans who called this place home for almost three years. They were shufﬂed off boats at Jerseyville on the Macleay and forced to walk the 10 kilometres to the prison. Inside its walls were kept some of Australia’s best educated and most brilliant people. Australia’s foremost orthopaedic surgeon of the time, Max Steiner, had the misfortune to be German and Jewish and he was incarcerated here with his family. At least the children of the inmates had the best orthopaedic care in the country.
The photographs from the era are touching. The faces look proud but there is a sense of bewilderment as they wonder what terrible misfortune caused their lives to be uprooted that forced them into a concentration camp. Despite the conditions, there was a great cultural life in the prison, music concerts and great German dramatic productions. The pictures from the theatrical productions showed that they went to extraordinary lengths to create authenticity. The sets, costumes and designs were all first class and lavish despite what must have been the most minimal of supplies. Steiner himself was also an accomplished artist and his sketches of the gaol and the bay adorn the museum as they contribute a sense of memory to the views.
Finally we ﬁnished our indoor tour and we emerge to see the rest of the gaol. First the viewing platform. Following one of my obsessions, I simply cannot go past a viewing post. I’ve just got to see the bigger picture. And the canvas is quite broad at this point with an inspiring view sweeping along the bay to South West Rocks.
Back at ground level, I amble past the kitchen complete with its massive stone kiln. The picture from the internee era shows a more vibrant time, the kiln in mid-puff while the kitchen bristles and bakes with bustling activity. The ghostly shadow today gives off its own perforation. Then it’s on to the punishment cells. Suitably dark and black and clanking with the sound of shackles. There is no photo here, it was not part of the advertising arsenal of the facilities.
Onwards to the main cell blocks of the prison. There are two blocks, one was used by convicts, the newer one used by internees. The place was a shopping mall of ghosts each brushing into you and clamouring for attention. I wander around until I can take no more spectral spruiking and when I am back outside the gaol, I shiver involuntarily. Grunty and I are in the mood to cycle up the hill to the monument erected by the Germans in memory of the three internees that died during the prison’s tenure. It is a simple stone monument. Only one of the deaths is described, a man who was ‘carried away at sea’. The monument was blown up in 1919 in an act of postwar anti German sentiment. Though we don’t get an exact date, we get an exact time. It happened at 4:30pm apparently, so we are a half hour late for its anniversary. It remained in rubble until 1960 when 41 years and another war had dimmed the tide of fury so they could be properly re-commemorated. The memorial doesn’t state what the time was when it was re-built.
The setting sun glares at us from below. We ﬂy back down the hill and I catch up with Mudster who has gone his own way to the beach below the gaol for an afternoon swim. I don’t need much of an invitation to join him. Grunt goes his own way in search of an intemet kiosk he saw along the way.
I hop into the calm waters of Trial Bay. At the time, I thought it might be the last swim of the campaign as this is the last overnight beach stop of the trip according to the Book, however we were soon to re-write the rules of the Book and find a more coastal route to Sydney without unduly bothering the Pacific Highway. Such talk is some way ahead of us.
For now, let me bask in the evening waters of Trial Bay. It is a rarity for east coast beaches as it faces west into the setting sun. Glenn and I dry off and cycle back to South West Rocks in the lengthening shadows. Glenn had decided not to change out of his Speedos so he is looking far too much like a triathlete for my liking on the way back. En route we pass the store at the Arakoon caravan park where Grunty is busy scribbling away his tale on their internet PC. I noted that the among the consumables sold by its shop were Deep Fried Mars Bars. I was surprised to see this rare outburst of Glaswegian culture in a Paciﬁc backwater but I pass on the gastronomic experience in any case.
There is not much light left by the time we get back. Back at home base we shower and change and sit around quietly in the growing darkness. After an hour or so, Grunty comes a knocking. We are soon taking the 10 minute walk back to town and the Sea Breeze hotel.
Very little time is wasted before we are all tucking into a plate of the lamb shanks, everyone pigging out on Glenn’s popular choice from last night. The pub is nowhere near as busy tonight as last night. So where are the people from the caravan park’s full house all eating tonight? The mystery is never satisfactorily resolved. Instead the place has totally emptied out by 9:30pm and we are among the last to leave the premises. Thursday is clearly the night when South West Rocks the cradle.
No-one is in a card playing mood tonight. It must be the prospect of a serious cycle tomorrow. We have got a big job ahead of us; 100kms and possibly more. Wauchope (pronounced Waw-hope) is the destination, a little bit inland from Port Macquarie. Wauchope has a railway station and here is where we expect to meet Hugh tomorrow afternoon to complete the Gang of Four. He is taking the early train down from Brisbane tomorrow in order to cycle the second week and join us for whatever set of adventures it will throw at us. And if you think we had a problem telling people we started at Rathdowney (which in any case wasn’t true for Muddy) and therefore settled on Brisbane, then poor old Hugh had no option but to tell everyone in his Northern Irish accent that he cycled from Wauchope. He had no hope.
We are all completely trampled and begin to sleep pondering the trip to Wauchope. We are confident we can do a serious beach ride if what those two English cyclists told us is correct, that is, the beach north of Port Macquarie was okay to ride on. I couldn’t consider this question for much longer. Because by then, two men dressed up as continents crushed me between their tectonic plates. I held my breath for as long as I could and dived underneath. There in a cave of snow, I blew my nose and staggered back as the resulting noise triggered an avalanche. A mustachioed person wearing a spiked helmet popped up from under the carpet and said, “So you now know that a half sun is better than no sun at all”. My nose was still under the pillow when I woke up on Friday morning.
The new Australia Day lamb ad is likely to be a conversation starter at barbecues on the day as increasingly lamb itself is likely to be on the menu. The ad is the latest creation of Meat and Livestock Australia, the marketing arm of Australian cattle, sheep and goat producers. From 2005 to 2016 their “lambassador” Sam Kekovich has been exorting Australians to eat more lamb on Australia Day. The former AFL player and Victorian media personality has been an inspired choice, in turns hectoring people to eat lamb while blasting vegan culture but usually getting away it with it thanks to his humorous deadpan tone.
The ads became increasingly sophisticated each year and in Kekovich’s final outing in 2016 “Operation Boomerang”, he joined SBS newsreader Lee Lin Chin and a gaggle of celebrities on a mission to save Australians abroad from going without lamb on Australia Day, an ad which was funny but with uncomfortable reminders of the police state Australia sometimes looks like. From an MLA marketing perspective, it was the most successful campaign yet with sales up a third in the weeks before and after Australia Day. The video was watched over 5.5 million times online and achieved over a thousand media mentions with an audience of 400 million. The MLA have upped the ante again in 2017 with less Kekovich, but more ambition, aiming for nothing less than a potted Australian history from the last 50,000 years. It is likely to beat last year for views and will probably also put more lamb on the table on Australia Day.
The ad starts with three Aboriginal people on the beach, the “first here” deciding to have a barbecue. The first visitors are the Dutch (who arrived in 1606) who bring cheese. Then the British arrive (in 1788), whose “We are the First Fleet” is answered by “Not quite, mate. They are very quickly followed by the French (also 1788) who also bring cheese. Next are the Germans (the first non British ship of colonists to arrive in 1848) who “bring their own” beer. This reminds them about ice and the scene moves to Antarctica where Mawson and Shackleton (1907-09) are packing ice for the party. Then come the Chinese (which is out of sequence as they first came in large numbers in the 1850s gold rushes) with explosives from Fyshwyck. Then come the Italians, Greeks and Serbians (including Kekovich in a cameo, the New Australians from after World War II). We are brought up to date by international hordes including an Indian asking Adam Gilchrist asking where the backyard is for cricket, a plug for “the neighbours” (New Zealand), and even the “boat people” before Malaysian-born chef Poh Ling Yeow asks “aren’t we all boat people?” And Australia’s multiculturalism is deemed complete with the “float people” from the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. Gilchrist thanks the Aboriginal people for “having us” at a great spot for a barbie. “Best in the world,” they reply.
This is an ad with an endless amount of material to be deconstructed, something MLA are only keenly aware of. MLA group marketing manager Andrew Howie told the ABC they consulted Indigenous groups throughout the creative process. “The work that we create is never designed to be offensive, it’s not designed to cause offense to people,” Mr Howie said. “This year’s campaign is a celebration of Australia’s history. This year, and with the essence of the brand being very much around unity, we realised that this time of year there are cultural sensitivities for some groups within the Australian community.”
By “some groups” Howie means the Aboriginal people, the supposed stars of his ad, many of whom oppose the date January 26 as Australia Day as marking “invasion day”, when Britain first declared New South Wales a colony in 1788. For this reason there is no mention of Australia Day in the ad, but given the history of the ads it’s hard avoid the conclusion that it’s about promoting sales on Australia Day. Darumbal woman Amy McQuire picked up this point about using Aboriginal pain to promote the sales of lamb. “There’s Aboriginal people dying in custody, having their children taken away, suiciding … and that oppression stems from that original invasion”. For McQuire and others, Australia’s history is not a celebration.
If that was criticism from the left, there was also criticism from the right. Predictably Pauline Hanson saw the ad as fair game to put the boot in multiculturalism, especially as that was the path the MLA had flagged its campaigns were going last year. “It really is pretty sad, isn’t it?” Hanson said. She blamed “bloody idiots out there, ratbags” though the News Ltd article does not make it clear who Hanson thinks are the idiots and ratbats. But she did feel threatened by the ad. “It’s pretty sad when it’s basically shutting us down for being proud of who we are as Australian citizens.” Hanson was trying to construct an Australian “us” against a ratbag “them” out to destroy all that Australia Day stood for. It was a confusing message but then Australian history is confusing, given it has never been taught properly in Australian schools. Australia Day does not celebrate, as Hanson said it does, “the day we celebrate forming our nation, our federation, our government” (that would be January 1) and MLA are right to downplay its significance other than just a public holiday where people are more likely than usual to attend a barbecue.
The ad is amusing and should also be praised for highlighting indigenous voices even if it did – like most Australian history books until the last 50 years – gloss over the fact that one of those visitors (the British) ended up taking over the beach barbie. Indigenous writer Luke Pearson applauded the ad for its diversity and inclusion but said it would have been more accurate “if the meat the English gave to the Aboriginal people was poisoned with smallpox or strychnine”. Pearson acknowledged that would have distracted from the ad’s core purpose “getting people to confuse eating meat with being patriotic”. Still, it’s capable of having than one purpose and if despite its cultural stereotypes it leads to a more nuanced discussion of Australian history (Hanson notwithstanding), the MLA will have served Australia well.
Breakfast this morning is elementary and fruity consisting as it does of a ﬂoury apple and two overripe bananas. When I look outside on the balcony, I notice that for the ﬁrst time in our expedition the weather is not perfect. It is cloudy and there is deﬁnitely the feel of rain in the air.
With not much to hang around for, we are ready and set to go at 7:15am. We make our way out of the silent and slumbering pub. First port of call is Macksville at 15kms away.
Macksville is another reason for Bowraville’s demise. The towns are too close together and Macksville has two big advantages over its rival. It is on the Paciﬁc Highway and on the big Nambucca River.
We soon come one of the Nambucca tributaries which leads us all the way to Macksville. The clouds soon reveal their rain. But it reckoned without our secret weapon that won the battle for us in a ritual which was to be repeated several times today. As soon as the rain was deemed sufﬁciently heavy to warrant cover, Grunty stopped and retrieved his raincoat out of the panniers. No sooner had he put it on then the rain stopped.
Next week we would be desperate for Grunty’s raincoat brigade to work its magic on the weather but by then it would be defeated by heavily superior forces. For now however, Grunty with his jacket on meant only good news and ﬁne weather for us.
We pass the sign inviting us to detour 30kms to Taylor’s Arm and its famous “pub with no beer”. Hardly a drawcard likely to inspire, I would have thought. Taylor is unable to twist my arm and we stick with Macksville.
After a couple of loops around town, we locate a riverside coffee shop with all the trimmings. It is done up in American diner style with a long bar, high wooden benches and plenty of built-in kitsch. Three egg and bacon mufﬁns are eagerly devoured so we can forget the taste of our earlier ﬂoury, fruity offering. They serve impressive beersteins of coffee here too.
The rain recommences its onslaught as soon as we leave the cafe but it is not long before Grant’s natty Netti coat does the business once more. Out of Macksville we have a few kilometres of Paciﬁc Highway to deal with until we ﬁnd the turnoff to back to the coast.
Today is the ﬁrst day both Grunty and Muddy (who shop in the same store) are wearing identical cycling tops. They look like an impressive Tour de France team as we hug the Warrell Creek towards the sea. And me, can I add to this cycling sartorial harmony? Nope, I’m dressed in one of my Dagwooddogsville Kentucky, fading and most holier-than-thou t-shirts. It doesn’t impede my progress however and all six wheels arrive in the seaside town of Scotts Head at pretty much the same time.
On the hill above town we admire Scott’s phrenology. There are ample photo opportunities across the bay towards Nambucca Heads and the estuary of the river that gives the town its name. I try to put my Heads together in my camera lens but no picture comes out. The batteries have run ﬂat, we have to zoom down the hill to the general store and meet its loquacious owners. Between selling me AAA batteries and giving me change, they tell us about the recent newsworthy event in these parts.
Somewhere near here, a Chinese boat carrying refugees tried to smuggle them ashore like Cornish contraband. Most of the refugees were picked up by police but a few escaped capture. Not sure what refugees could expect to do in these parts unless they enjoy surﬁng.
As we speak, three crusty old diggers of the surf (none of whom look like Chinese refugees) are emerging from the nearby water after their morning session. They are friendly souls and one of them insists on taking an action photo shot of the three cyclists on the beach complete with machines. A somewhat fabricated photo emerges.
At some point Grunty trods in doggie doo. And shortly thereafter he repeats the feat for good measure. “Double Dog Shit Day” is born.
Like the poo, the sand here is too soft for cycling but we would other better beaches for beachriding activity. We say farewell to the jovial surfers and set off back up the hill for Grassy Head. We are creatures consumed by compromise.
The Book recommends we stay a night in Grassy Head making today a half day journey and then take another half day tomorrow to get to South West Rocks. But we prefer the notion of a whole day off so are prepared to strike Grassy Heads from our sleeping register. As it turns out, this is a good move indeed. Unless you’ve got a tent (and we don’t carry this type of currency) you don’t stand a chance of a bed in Grassy Head.
Unless of course, you belong to a religious organisation. There are quite a few grand looking compounds dotted along the road dedicated to the spiritual comforts of assorted religious groups. Oh to be a Trappist or have tentish trappings. Without God or tarpaulins to comfort us, we simply move along. Before we go, we wander through Grassy Head’s campsite. There isn’t even a store here as far as I can see. What Book in its right mind would recommend this place to a cyclist? There is however a pathway which leads to a lookout above the beach behind the campsite. Being suckers for lookouts, we hop off the bikes and head for the hills. Half way up the hill there is a monument ‘erected by Alexander McKenzie in memory of his beloved brother who perished in the nearby creek in 1859’. I don’t quite know why but I am deeply touched by this display of fraternal affection.
The lookout gazes out over the wetlands and the mouth of the Macleay river whose entrance has steadily changed its position in the last 150 years now meeting the sea further south at South West Rocks alter a series of ﬂoods drove it away from Grassy Heads. South West Rocks itself seems tantalisingly within touching distance just beyond the river mouth but there is no bridge on the road directly south so we will have to do a serious detour inland in order to get there.
Our last stop along this stretch of coast is Stuarts Point. Here we had hoped that perhaps the beach might be navigable to the river mouth and maybe there was a ferry across to the other side. I’m not quite sure why we entertained these ideas but we were wrong on both counts. We can get to the beach, which is a short trip across a footbridge from town but the beach itself is impassable down to the river. I take some more calendar shots of the well matched cycling duo with South West Rocks as an imposing and tantalising background.
Back in Stuarts Point proper, our arrival is choreographed neatly with the noise of stomach rumblings. Lunch is served at the local shop that does a ﬁne line in steak sandwiches. With the lot. Steak, eggs, bacon, cheese, beetroot, tomato, onion, lettuce, everything except native wildlife is crammed onto my bun and gives my jaws useful stretching exercise.
Above us, a large cloud is marshalling its forces for another assault and we may well be forced to bring in the heavy artillery of Grunty’s rainjacket in an effort to combat its black might. No sooner are we back on the bikes after lunch when the cloud launches an opening volley in our direction. It is just a warning splatter over our bows for now. Encouraged by its success, it lets loose with more serious water cannon. Grunty stops to put on his war jacket and for the third time today the cloud scuttles away in defeat with its tail between its legs.
Its an undulating trip back to the Paciﬁc Highway but at least we sidestep a big hill that I thought we would have to climb when I saw it outside of Stuarts Point. Big dark clouds surround us but none of them are game to take us on in battle. We are now back on the busy highway and we will have to put up with the traffic for a further 15kms until we get to the South West Rocks turnoff. A fast piece of road with a wide shoulder keeps us out of harm’s way and we locate the turnoff after a rapid half hour’s rambling.
The last leg of our journey takes us back northwards to the township. It’s a rare northbound experience for us and it’s damn good to experience the assistance of a tail wind. We do the last 15 riverside kilometres in close formation each taking turns in the vanguard. It is an exhilarating sprint, ﬂogging the last reserves of energy knowing the ﬁnish line is close and a Rest Day awaits. We cross over the Macleay and beyond us are the hills of South West Rocks and the nearby Smoky Cape lighthouse.
We feel in our bones that our destination is going to be a beautiful place and well worthy of the Rest Day we are about to bestow on it.
Come with us, we are about to blow you away on bicycles. Welcome to South West Rocks (the name of the town is a ready-made radio jingle). We ﬂy into town spirits soaring at the end of another satisfying day in the saddle.
Our arrival is town is greeted by sunshine, the first real sunny outbreak of the day. The soreness doesn’t count right now. There are two last dull kilometres of outskirts to negotiate. The wide shopping centres of big town suburbia are here too. A lot of people do well out of South West Rocks and their needs must be catered to. We, however, are not interested in this facet of life in the town. We pedal on to the town centre and the amphitheatre of Horseshoe Bay that it sits on.
A caravan park has the prime site on the bay. And it will do for us. We found out later that its lease has only seven or eight years left to run before it is returned to a nature reserve. A delightful gift back to the landscape. But for now, I was happy the caravan park was here and in business. It looks just the perfect spot for us to hole out for two days.
Tomorrow was the first of the two wondrous luxuries we had promised ourselves, a Rest Day. The very name sends repose through my bones. For one day only, my calves would not be singing to the tune of veal meat again. For one day only, we wouldn’t have to go through the ritual of packing everything up. That was the good news. The bad news was the caravan park was booked out for tomorrow night (Thursday) and we could only stay one night.
Damn, we would have to move tomorrow after all, albeit only a short distance away. Let’s leave it as tomorrow’s problem, today we die here. We all wanted to take advantage of this park’s wonderful position and agree to take the one night on offer. We are all exhausted but happy to be in this pretty locale. The town overlooking the bay contains a lively and crucial quadrant of commerce that looks like serving all our needs. Beyond the beach are the grassy cliffs heading towards the long strand of Trial Bay. At the end of the bay lies Trial Bay Gaol, a place I hope to visit tomorrow. On the other side of Horseshoe Bay lies a creek and beyond the creek another beach. Beyond the creekside beach could be seen the pier at the estuary where the Macleay empties all its river spew into the ocean.
The beaches themselves look pristine and white and the mighty view north towards the Nambucca and Coffs in the far distance was tolerably easy on the eye. And when the eye is so relaxed, the body can’t be far behind. Mudster needs a little outside help to confirm this and so he disappears off into town to see if he can get a well-earned massage somewhere tomorrow morning.
All of us make independent plans for some parcel of time in this town though I think we are all agreed on a visit to Trial Bay Gaol at some stage of the proceedings. Meanwhile there is some clothes washing to be done. It gets done. There is some swimming to be done. That deﬁnitely gets done too. Grunty and I go to the main beach and test out its busy waters. And so for the ﬁrst time in the trip outside the shower, Grant gets seriously wet. The waves in Horseshoe Bay are large and enjoyable as they pound on you near the shore. There are plenty of people splashing about. We get some boyish enjoyment from watching some of the beach denizens’ more pointed behaviours. The joy of the day is immense. I feel energised and I suspect those doughty endorphins are dousing down the thalamus in preparation for their own rave party.
Another long day travelled, and daily I gain more and more a sense of doing something worthwhile if perhaps also completely daft. Aﬁer drying off, I take a solo wander around the cliffs either side of the bay. My camera dissolves in chattering panic as I steal my memories from South West Rocks.
But where am I hiding my stomach while all this is going on? It surely cannot be too long before she bellows. And she bellows loud and proud when the time comes. We congregate back at the caravan. Muddy has happily booked himself a massage for tomorrow morning. We discuss the lie of the land around town. Talk inevitably turns to the matter of food and drink. It is 5pm and the lure of the Sea Breeze hotel sitting proudly by the bay proves too ﬁerce for me to reject any further. The other two show more restraint and promise to join me within the hour.
I set off alone and make my way up the hill. I pass the line of Norfolk pines, the proud staple of many Australian beach towns, and they remind me of the convict spirit that built Australia, a curious chapter of which I will check out tomorrow. I come to the pub armed with my journal and having found a seat near the front window I begin to describe the events of the day with the spiritual aid of two schooners of Victoria Bitter and a packet of salt and vinegar chips. And I think to myself “These are crisps not chips. Just look at them” I held one up and examined it closely “they are too scrawny to be a chip off the old shoulders. And think of all the unnecessary confusion between chips and hot chips”. I put it in my mouth. “deﬁnitely more crispy than chippy”. Ah well, I sighed and compensated this naming conundrum more than adequately with a view of twilight falling on the bay.
A happy looking Glenn and Grant arrive to pull me out of this mental chasm that I’ve descended into. They also provide an immediate excuse for a third schooner. We are living dangerously tonight, giddy with the prospect of a less demanding day ahead. The kitchen has opened and is tempting us with its smells. The pub has noticeably filled up too. The meals certainly look big enough for hungry cyclists based on inspections of a nearby table’s offerings. Good enough for us and we order three massive platefuls of protein that our bodies are screaming out for. All our meals look good but we agree Muddy’s colourful plate of lamb shanks scoops the prize as best of the bunch. The food goes down well and conversation is its most animated it has been since the start of the trip.
The holiday is gradually picking up its own image and its conventions are well established. But the boundaries need to be pushed forward a little every now and then. And so we enter uncharted waters in our third round of drink however we inexplicably hit the wall at some simultaneous point and I know it’s pointless to continue. And so at the paltry time of 8:30pm we are all clapped out and done like dinners.
Docile as lambs we meekly ﬂock off the premises. I am not quite ready for a return to the rabbit warren even if I have had enough to drink. And so I set off towards the cliffs. There is a threat of rain in the air. The winds blows blustery according some rules of its own. Out on the bay, it is lovely and clear, the water bobbles in oscillating obeisance to the Moon. The cliffs to the north of the Bay look sinister in the black pitch of distance. Far away, the lights of Coffs Harbour dance frivolously on the shoreline. The night sky is partially in thrall to the clouds but in the gaps there are plenty of stars pulsing harmoniously.
I’m not sure if I set out on this trip with a goal — other than to get to Sydney — but it has been enjoyable nonsense so far. The boys are getting on well together. Grant and Glenn didn’t really know a great deal about each other before the start of the trip but they were quickly at ease with each other. Though Glenn’s inexplicable pronunciation of Grant’s name as “Gronty” is frankly disturbing for reasons I can’t fathom.
The cool of the night air interrupts my rambling thoughts and I set back towards the caravan park. A few quiet hours are passed with TV, playing cards and books. We are still up and about at 11pm, the latest time we have been awake so far.
But now its time to slump down on my pillow. Before long, the pillow has undergone a metamorphosis and I am now staring into a goddess’s cushion. She throws the cushion to the ﬂoor and a single feather escapes and ﬂutters gently to the ground. I am hitching a ride on the feather while decked out in turban violence. It’s all glorious, gliding through the turbulence until a fer-de-lance slithers snakily into my ear and orders me awake. It’s 6:30am and quite bright. The sea is singing in the background. I try to whistle its tune. But whistling is not one of my strongpoints and the noise I make hurts my own ears. I sneak out past the sleepers and hit the water for an early morning swim.
We‘ve been well blessed with the weather so far. And so it’s steady as she goes, pleasant and sunny, when I wake up on Tuesday morning the first day of the new month. The darling buds of May have arrived. In another hemisphere. In Australia, I am marooned in the real time of late Autumn, looking forward to another day’s solid cycling. I sing ridiculous baptismal chants in the shower and wish myself bon voyage.
Once again the Muddy Mudster has set the earliest alarm bells and was already away creek crawling in the nearby park. Some walk he had discovered on the local map last night. He may have warned us of his intentions at Tea. I did hear him get up and was sorely tempted to join him but instead I decided that the offer of an extra hour’s sleep was too good to refuse. I prefer to save my energies for the forthcoming ride estimated at about 75km but with significantly bigger hills than anything we had officially done so far. Though after our unrecognised climb to the border, I reckon I am ready for anything gravity can throw at me.
Glenn returns to the room and the good man has not only been out walking, he has been out shopping. He returns with milk and breakfast cereals. We hoe into the food with relish.
As our eyes start to regain focus on the world about us, we realise that Grunty has not shaved since Day One. Today is the first day that laziness has been transformed into intent. Grunty’s grizzle is taking shape and its beardish outline dominates the morning diatribe. Viva Zapata! I leave our gringo star and his hairy cheeks and check the status of my washing on the popular line.
The t-shirts are dry but the bike pants are still a bit damp. They are the only ones I’ve got, so on they go. I know that whatever discomfort I feel about a damp bum will soon be replaced by more substantial forces.
We retrieve our key deposit from the front desk aﬁer having proved ourselves as worthy tenants for the night. Outside to check the bikes and load the gear. I whirl my wheel around but can’t locate the source of the clicking noise. It was difficult to pin down, overwhelmed by the noise of Coffs peak hour morning trafﬁc that has assumed dominance by 8am on the main road outside.
We set off on Day 4 of the cycle. Within ten seconds of starting, we are ﬂagged down by Grunty. He stops, dismounts and examines his cycling shoes. What’s the problem? It’s the cleat. The cleat is the connection point between his shoes and his pedals and his right cleat has broken off. It will need to be replaced before he can consider any further cycling. A technical hitch that will require a minor change of plan. Grant will have to hang around town for 45 minutes until the bike shops open.
Our lunch stop is the town of Bellingen on in its near- monikered Bellinger river (where a Lucinda-less Oscar drowned in his glass church). Glenn and I will set off ahead and Grant promises to meet us in Bellingen — if not before.
We part ways and Muddy and I take the back road out of town to Coffs’ partner town of Sawtell. Sawtell is a sleepier surfside resort cast in Coffs’ image but without the crowds. However the Sawtell road is busy enough this morning. As well as the inter-town trafﬁc, the airport and university are also attracting custom.
It is a relief when we ﬁnd a bike path parallel to the road. It’s wide and quick and a lot less stressful than dealing with trucks on the road. We pass a wide imposing unnamed creek in the woods that surely deserves a name as well as the better epithet of river.
According to our trusty Book, we don’t actually go into Sawtell itself. No, we are supposed to take the roundabout turnoff to Toormina (another near namesake, though Toormina lacks the geographical harmonies of its Sicilian cousin Taormina) and turn inland towards an unavoidable section of the Pacific Highway. But given Grunty’s dilemma we now have additional time on our hands. So we agree that if the Pacific Highway can’t be avoided then there is no reason Sawtell ought to be avoided either. We decide to check out this seaside hamlet’s ghost.
Thus we take the Sawtell turnoff at the roundabout. We would be made to pay for this minor revolt against the dictates of the Book. We spin onwards until we get back to the coast and see a sign for a lookout. We can’t resist. The lookout is only a few hundred metres from the road but it is perched at the top of a pole of a hill.
After much huffery and puffery, these two little pigs made it to the top. We are rewarded by a wonderful view fore and aft. Well worth the lungburst. Sweeping views back along the way we came, we see our pilgrims’ progress over the creek, back through the woods, past the airport and on to the beaches at Coffs. Behind Coffs is the Red Hill we tramped down yesterday and although I can’t quite see them, I conjure up a two day old memory of the jacarandas back at Grafton, tall and proud. Turning the other way, I can see into the future. There are more beautiful beaches beyond Sawtell and big dark ominous hills further south. Meanwhile the wrap-around of the present is completed by the straight ahead sight of the Pacific Ocean. You didn’t to be up here to appreciate it, but it certainly helps. This feast of movable parts goes on for a fair slice of forever before finally mingling with the sky in some navy blue battle well out to sea.
After a few minutes of photography and smelling the view, we trudge back down the hill and venture into Sawtell proper. In the township, the Mudded one informs me that he requires two things. The first is money and this issue is easily dealt with a smash and grab raid on an ATM. The second is a bit more problematic. A bike problem. He is slipping out of gears at inconvenient moments and requires some technical assistance from a bike shop. But Sawtell doesn’t seem to have one.
We find a sports shop where “we look after all your shooting needs”. Glenn asks the older gentlemen behind the counter if there is a cycle shop in town. No, the nearest shop is in Toormina, is his response, but he tells us he does stock puncture repair kits. Not quite part of our shooting needs. We thank him for his interest, and set off back to Toormina.
Glenn leads the way and disappears over the top of a hill. When I see him next, he has dismounted and is picking up a snake from the road. When I get closer I realise its not a snake, it’s a bicycle chain. Glenn’s chain has completed snapped off. Mayday, mayday indeed. Our mechanical problems mount by the hour.
Now a return to Toormina is an imperative. Only problem is Toorinina is still 5km away and Glenn’s bike is severely handicapped. He trudges off up the hill forlornly on foot but he will be able to freewheel on the downhill stretches. With time suddenly on my hands, I go back to Sawtell to find a public phone and alert Grunty (he was the only one of us to carry a handset in these pre-smart phone days) that now we too will be delayed, and probably by a more signiﬁcant margin than him.
Only problem is that Grunty has got a new mobile phone, especially for this trip and guess who has been meaning to get the number off him but has consistently forgotten to ask? But there is more than one way to skin cattle and so I ring Malool in work back in Brisbane and after a brief but exhausting effort of trying to make him understand what I was after and why, he provides me with Grunty’s new number. I ring the number and nothing happens. No tone, No beep. Try again, same result. I bring down vicious curses on Malool’s absent head. I ring him back and proceed to heap some abuse. He stoically gives me the same telephone number. Then I look at what I’ve written down and realise I can’t read my own writing.
Grunty picks up his mobile when I ring the right number. Complete with cleat, he is back on the road. I tell him of our troubles and our delay. “Where are you?” I then ask. I could hear the sound of trucks in the background. “I’m on the Pacific Highway” he shouted “near Bonville” he added helpfully. “BonvilIe? Where’s that?” “About 15kms south of Coffs Harbour” “Wait there, I don’t know how long it will be before we are back on the road. I’ll give you a call back when we get to the bike shop and assess the damage”.
I leave Grunty to marinate in Bonville. I set off towards Toormina. It doesn’t take too long to catch up with Glenn. He has done an impressive job despite a lack of pedal power and when I haul him in he is freewheeling down the last hill to the Toorinina roundabout. I scout on ahead and quickly locate the bike shop in the Toormina shopping centre.
Glenn hobbles into town. In the shop, the mechanics look busy. However Glenn tells them we are long distance cyclists and on a mission from God. Actually he might have left that bit out, it didn’t matter – they were sympathetic and moved their work schedules around and made Glenn their highest priority. They reckon they can have the bike with a new chain back on the road in 30 minutes.
Excellent news. I ring Grunty with an update. He has found a service station in Bonville and is pleasantly ensconced in a courtyard with a coffee and a newspaper in his hand. No problem then for him to hang around another hour or so until we arrive. Grant causes my own caffeine sensors to ﬂare up. Conveniently there is a coffee shop next door to the bike shop. By the time the second short black is working its magic, Glenn’s bike is ready to hit the road again. One of the mechanics is from Bellingen and he recommends the Swiss patisserie there for lunch. Thanks, we’ll check it out.
We meander through the suburban arteries of Toormina without ever ﬁnding its heartbeat. Soon we are on the Paciﬁc Highway, our ﬁrst experience of this, the court of King Bitumen linking Sydney and Brisbane. It starts off well with four lanes and a wide shoulder with no glass or rubble to interrupt a cyclist’s progress. Soon, however, the dual carriageway is exposed as a mirage and we have shrivelled back to 2 busy lanes of trafﬁc. Not particularly pleasant especially when the trucks roar by and lift us off the ground in their slipstream.
Bonville quickly comes into sight and we look out for the service station where Grunty has taken refuge. And there he was, ever patient and bright as a button when we arrived, another coffee in his hand and the newspaper well thumbed. The day’s dealings didn’t look to have seriously inconvenienced him. Now that we all have our running repairs done, we quickly set off.
As we leave the service station, two cyclists enter. They are the ﬁrst other touring cyclists we have seen so far. They are an English couple in their 50s, very hardy souls. They had done it all, putting our miserly two week effort to shame. They have been on the road for three months, starting in Tasmania and working their way slowly up through Victoria and NSW. They were hoping to get out to the Red Centre of Australia after they dealt with some family matters in Nambour north of Brisbane. These gritty veterans give us vital snippets of information about our proposed route south. They give us good news and bad. The good is the beach north of Port Macquarie is cycleable (this will help us avoid another signiﬁcant portion of the Paciﬁc Highway), the bad is the splendidly named Buckett’s Way (which we are scheduled to hit about 10 days into the ride) is a long, bumpy potholed nightmare. There are too many holes in this Buckett for our liking and a signiﬁcant detour may be necessary. In return, we give them a synopsis of the road conditions we’ve experienced. We wish them good speed and they set sail in the direction from whence we came.
We are in a busy stretch all the way to the Bellinger river. Grunty sets the pace this morning and I struggle hard to keep him in view. Just before the turnoff, he spots a viewing point (and being hopeless suckers for these things), we both detour to look at the expanse of the river and the surrounding valley. Glenn bringing up the rear is unaware of our diversion and the viewing point so he cycles straight past.
After a rest, Grunty and I get back on the road. We say a willing farewell to the Paciﬁc Highway knowing that we have not seen the last of this mother. We are now on the evocatively named Waterfall Way. We don’t see any cascades but the Bellinger River is our pretty companion for the 10 kms into Bellingen. Brotherly, we go over Marx Hill and dialectically glide into town.
There I spy Glenn in a phone box. Contrary to my initial impression that he was donning a Superman costume, I ﬁnd out he was about to ring us. Glenn didn’t realise he had overtaken us and wondered if we’d missed the mark.
We all cycle down Bellingen’s pretty main street. The town has become a rainbow outpost of Coffs over the last 20 years and its evolution can be charted in the number of alternative lifestyle enterprises thriving here. With a bit of German Lutheran thrown in to the architecture. The river can be heard behind the main street, charging down towards the sea. There is an enjoyable feel to the town, very different from any town we had passed through to date.
We were sorry we hadn’t timed our stop here for the evening so we could check the place out after dark. Our regrets on this score were to increase later today.
We quickly locate the Swiss Patisserie as recommended by the Toormina Bellingen boy. It looks cosy enough with plenty of outdoor seating. Busy too so the food can’t be too bad. Little did we know that the incident that named the day was about to occur. It started innocently enough when we went inside and ordered from a varied menu. The pies were simple enough but delicious. The problem came when Grunty spotted the piece de resistance on the menu. “Bee-sting Slice” the gateau fatal advertised itself as. We were stung by the name alone. A sort of honey, custard and caramel slice and it may have marzipan and chocolate and probably a host of other temptations too. Grunty fell in love with it straight away.
As I was nearest the counter he asked me to order it “oh, and get it cut in 3 slices so we can all have a bit”. I passed on Grunty’s request. “Three slices?” the lady behind the counter replied incredulously. “Yes, three” I repeated, patiently. I looked at the slice. It was surely big enough to cut into three. I wondered if she was contemptuous of our dessert eating capabilities.
“Three, uh?” She glared back at me.
“Yes three, please” I reply ever more timidly.
She goes away to collect our pies, cuts the cake and wraps it up for us.
I retreat to the table. We hammer home the pies and open the bag containing the cake.
She had cut it into two slices. I suppose even that must been a superhuman effort for her. In any case, the three of us bit indiscriminately from the two slices. They were lip smacking good. And well worth its ﬂirtatious name.
We are loath to leave town but we still have 30kms and three big hills to contend with today. We bid a fond farewell to Bellingen An Der Bellinger and set off on to the road to Bowraville in search of more serious quarry.
We immediately hit a long hill after we pass the last house in town. I’ve barely recovered from lunch and I have to deal with this? Halfway up this bonecruncher I start to suspect we are the quarry. And what is it exactly, that’s hunting us?
While this was idle speculation, at least it was speculation and it was taking up time that might otherwise be spent thinking I’m in pain. Any tactic, anything at all that will help me through these last few hundred metres. I would gladly use my soul as collateral in a bid to fast forward my life ﬁve minutes so that I could ﬁnd myself at the top of the hill right now. Ugh! Just got to keep pushing. Somehow I get to the top before I realise I won’t have to foot the bill for my Faustian fantasy. I’ve just done my ﬁrst official Triangle! Only two more to go today, I think as my triumph quickly evaporates.
I stop to draw breath and take a big gulp of my water supply. Quarter of my entire ration gone in one almost fallen swoop. The boys arrive single ﬁle trailing in the wake of my small chain. Despite his thirst, Grunty looks as if he could really do with a cigarette. Glenn muddies the waters by coming in looking perversely healthier than he has looked so far. These hills were obviously driving a lot of shit from his lungs.
The weather continues to be terriﬁc. We have not yet needed to invoke Patton’s Weather prayer to keep the rains away. But, I warn myself as we start to ride again, you’ve sold your soul to the devil on that ﬁrst hill and he is one diabolical son of a bitch who keeps his promises. I ponder the truth of this aﬂer our freewheel down the other side is over all too quickly and we are into our second climb. And this one is not even a Triangle.
Not quite in the same league as the ﬁrst hill, it is still capable of causing a cup upset and we treat it with due deference. The names of Bellingen, Spicketts and Bowra were to become painfully familiar to me. They were the law ﬁrm that ruled these here parts, the names of the three hills that formed the Triangles we had to conquer.
We had beaten Bellingen hill but it was just a kid compared to the upcoming duo of Spicketts and Bowra. And ma and pa were angry. I am soon out of the saddle and riding in the standing position as I strike Spicketts. Worse still I am now on dirt. Halfway out of Bellingen (the town, not the hill) it becomes a gravel road. We are to be deprived of the familiar comforts of bitumen for the last two Triangles.
I ferry myself up the hill accompanied by a constant crunch of stones and mud with the odd pebble being ﬂung far out of its orbit. On the more positive side of the spectrum is the quiet of the place, gorgeous Edenic glimpses stolen through the trees. And the trees themselves. They stand high and proud and leave only the width of a trafﬁc lane or two for sky above.
I pant my way around another corner and the view brightens with the glorious sight of the valley below. But this is hard work, you’d better believe it. Finally done it. Made it to the top. Two down, one to go. Time again for more joyous downhill squeals. But as we are on a windy dirt road, my hands are never far from the brakes.
The last challenge is Bowra mountain, the master criminal. He is 160m tall, 2.75kms long and is mad as hell. He starts looking for my scalp as soon as the second downhill is complete. “No respite” is part of his weaponry. I am immediately wrestling with the biggest daddy of them all. But having gotten used to the conditions on Mama Spicketts, I feel conﬁdent I have the armoury to defeat big bad Bowra too. But the big bully has one last ace hidden far up its sleeve. I hear its whine ﬁrst. As I go further up the hill, the whine becomes a roar. I exhaustively scan my imagination in a vain attempt to shed light on what this monster might actually be.
And then I see it. My heart sinks. On this of all days, the local council have got the grading machine going on the top of Bowra mountain. It’s an enormous rig that threatens to engulf the whole road. Which, I suppose, it does. The ﬁrst problem was how to get past it. I inch up on this fornication of formulas and judge the gap between the slow moving machine and the slower moving bushes. It was a tight ﬁt and I ended up with a generous amount of greenery decorating my helmet but I squeezed past. My problems were just beginning. Not only does this monster eat the road, it also spits it out. The degrading aftermath of grading is a treacherous soft muddy road.
No time for triumph at the coronation of this hill, going downhill was even harder. I was concerned about reaching any sort of speed on this icerink on the way down. My hands jitterbug and jagger between the handlebars and the brakes. Somehow I manage to hold on until the bottom. I ungrit my teeth and whisper gratitude to Bowra for sparing me.
The lads join me in a unified chorus of relief. We gain a bonus point by returning to bitumen for the home stretch to Bowraville. However this is not quite the cakecycle we had promised ourselves. We face one last troublesome hill (only 15 degrees short of a Triangle, in my estimation) then there are a few rolling encores that due to our tiredness were far more difficult than they had any right to be.
We arrived in Bowraville as the clock ticked on towards 4pm. My ﬁrst instinctive reaction is not good. Is this it? I ask myself the question as I wheel down the main street. According to the Book, “Bowraville is a charming little town on the Bowra river”. I didn’t see much charm or any river as I slowly glide past the shops. There is the big wide street divided in two by a green area. I couldn’t quite put my ﬁnger on the reason for it but it seemed to be an unhappy place.
The sadness appears in the eyes of the aboriginal people sitting on the street and outside the pub. It also appears in the shopfronts with the ‘Site Vacant’ sign. It seemed that four out of every ﬁve shops had this sign. The place is dead quiet with barely a car or a pedestrian moving. All I could hear was the sounds of distant dog barking. This was a town in a fair bit of trouble. A dying outback Australian town starved of jobs and facilities.
At the pit of my stomach, I felt I wanted to move on and stay somewhere else. The others had similar feelings as we met to discuss our options. It was late, we were tired and Macksville at 15kms seemed a pointless bridge too far. Nambucca Heads, the nearest coastal town, is even further away. So it looks as if we are staying in Bowraville.
Our accommodation options are limited to the two pubs that remain. Grunty and I walk towards the nearest pub. A few Aboriginals were having an animated discussion in the balcony outside the pub. Only whitefellas were inside and the few who were there were meditating in cloistered silence.
I ask the barmaid whether they have accommodation. Yes they do, and she thinks its $10 a head for the night but just to be sure she’ll ask the landlady. I’m sure she has got it wrong. $10 seems ridiculously cheap — even for a place like Bowraville. The landlady emerges to greet the rare sight of newcomers in town. The barmaid was wrong, the price is in fact $5 a head. I struggle to keep a straight face as she tells me the news.
Grunty and I go upstairs to look at the room. It’s a typical pub room. Old, musty and dusty and no en suite. A 1950s mothball smell pervades the room. Still, it’s clean, the beds look comfortable enough and I don’t think we will have too much competition for the bathroom. And you cannot argue with the price. Surely this was the cheapest bed in Australia?
We check in and fork out the outrageous room rate. The landlady leads us around the back to park the bikes. Back upstairs, I test out the springs on my bed. I doubt if it has been slept in for some considerable time. Not only have we got a room, we’ve got a balcony which goes right around the front and side of the pub.
I looked out on Bowraville. I imagined I was transported to a small dusty southern American town. I was waiting for a rabid dog to prowl the street. Better get all the chillun inside and call Atticus Finch. I put this notion out of my head and collapse in one of the balcony’s armchairs.
I consider the Triangles and their significance. What did it mean to go up a big hill by pedal power alone? Apart from the strain I feel in every part of my body, I reckon it gives me a sense of being in tune without pulling strings. There is ample pain but in return the rewards are great.
I am temporarily distracted from my sado-masochistic woolgathering by the noise of a loud argument below. But I don’t give it much thought; after all the pub is a splendid venue for boisterous debate. And my mind strays to some of the products sold in the bar below. I’m too tired to go for a beer now, alcoholic refreshment will have to wait until later.
For now, I pull out our travelling card deck. I play a little solitaire and under hypnosis I forget where I am. While mesmerised, the boys go outside on a fact-ﬁnding mission. They come back soon with food and the food story. The food is chocolate biscuits and Coke and the bottle and the biscuits disappear quickly.
Then they tell me the food story. Where can we eat tonight? Well, the RSL does food but not early in the week so it’s out. Neither pub serves food in the evening and if there were any restaurants in town they have been shut down. There is a cafe across the road serving hot fried food but it shuts down at 6pm.
Nonetheless it is our only option. Either that or we’ll be singing for our supper in Bowraville. Straight away, I negotiate my way through the long cavernous hallway to ﬁnd the bathroom. I’ll be ready by 5:45pm, don’t you worry. We are all dressed and ready by 5:30am and set off across the road in search of dinner. It’s my ﬁrst venture outside in Bowraville minus pedals. It’s darkening quickly and those street lights could do with a few extra watts.
Inside the cafe, we get a very friendly greeting from the proprietor. He’s the ﬁrst person I’ve seen smiling in Bowraville. We sit at the table in the back garden. Our repast of ﬁsh and chips are helped down by the only unusual item on his menu — chicken satays. The cans of coke are a dollar a can. Is everything dirt cheap in Bowraville or have the world markets revalued the dollar today while I wasn’t looking? We stay well past the supposed 6pm shutdown.
The proprietor chats with some local kids and no-one seems put out by our presence.
We stew over our day and despite the many attractions of this town we award naming rights of the day to Bellingen. Today is Bee Sting Day. Right now, I wished I was staying the night there. But cycling bedouins can’t be choosers.
We feel a thirst building and its time to do a pub crawl of town. All two pubs worth. We walk down the dark wide street and are immediately confronted with some local drama. An old lady is driving a jalopy slowly up the street when Bang goes her tyre. I know exactly how she feels. We walk across the road to inspect the deﬂated damsel’s damage. She’s not too big on changing tyres and doesn’t know where the jack is “you see, its my son’s car, I’m supposed to be playing Bingo in Macksville”.
We ﬁnd the jack and the spare and change the tyre. She walks to a phone box to alert her son who lives nearby. The spare tyre is almost as ﬂat as the one it is replacing. I advise her she shouldn’t consider going to Bingo or anywhere else until she gets the tyre inﬂated. Not to worry, she replies, “My son will be here soon and he’ll sort it out. Thank you very much for your help”.
I’m not entirely sure what sort of sorting he will do but we leave the scene and walk on to check out our pub’s only competition in town. It has imposing high-roofed dark timber interiors, a relic from a bygone age of a wealthier Bowraville. The story was told in all the pictures dotted around the pub. Turn of the 20th century timber cutters pose proudly in front of monstrous trees they have just culled. Mud roads through the rainy town centre carrying huge logging trucks pulled along the wet streets by drenched but genuine horsepower. Lumber was in the blood of Bowraville. But now the lumber industry has moved on and in its deaththroes it has bled the population dry. There is no money left in town.
The pub is daunting but quiet. A half handful of tired people sit quietly by the bar. It feels rude to talk too loudly here. We ﬁnish our beer and head back to the other half of the crawl at our home pub. Here, there is an equally imposing two people at the bar. The Aboriginals outside have mysteriously disappeared and we take their spots on the balcony. It’s a newer looking building and not as imposing as the other pub. That’s probably why it seems more welcoming. But the signs on the walls of this pub point to less friendlier times. “Persons found spitting on the premises will be banned for life” one warns harshly of the etiquette demanded. “People stealing glasses will not be welcome back” states another as I try to ﬁgure out the difference between being banned and not being welcomed back. Most intriguing of all is the sign that states “Please do not ﬁght on the premises. In the event of a ﬁght, we will close the pub for the night”. Drastic stuff.
I ruminated that in the event of being caught expectorating, I would steal a glass and start a ﬁght so not only would I be banned and not welcomed back but also I would cause every one else to go home thirsty on the night. I put this rebellious notion back into the dusty barrio of my brain from whence it came and suggest we retire to the pool room. With the aid of an unprecedented ﬁfth schooner of beer (we were really splashing out tonight), my hand to eye coordination is unusually good and I manage to judge enough straight lines to see off the Mudster in the opening encounter. But then Hurricane Grunty blows us both away in quick succession to claim to be the undisputed holder of the Bowraville Bowl. All too much excitement for one night.
There doesn’t seem to be much prospect of a ﬁght here tonight between the two remaining tacitum customers at the bar. Its time for us old men to wind our way up the stairs and sneak in another early night. We need all the rest we can lay our heads on this week as we know the drinking pace will pick up on the weekend with the arrival of the Fourth Man.
And so as I drift off to sleep, I am confronted by a basket. A basket I had made in Elementary Weavery. There was crumpled paper inside it. The basket asked me a question “Is this scrap?” it said. “Pardon?” I responded. “Is this scrap?” it repeated. I was dumbstruck. Finally I said “I don’t know what you are talking about”. I looked around, dived into the nearest letterbox and hid on the ﬂoor. As I crouched there, a voice whispered into my ear “Pink is worth six”. I closed my eyes and pretended I wasn’t there. As indeed I wasn’t.
When I wake around 6am, there is a minor tweak of stiffness around my knees. Despite this, the body and legs are holding up well so far. The arse end is tender and saddle-sore but is hardening by the day. The only real health worry comes from an unexpected source. The big toe on my right foot. For some reason it was being crushed in my cycling shoe in a manner not mimicked by its partner on the left foot. It was a minor armoyance that grew as the cycling day wears on but quickly disappears as soon as I remove the shoe.
Tomorrow we are looking forward to our ﬁrst rest day at South West Rocks but we have to get there ﬁrst approximately 90kms south of here.
At home, its time to dig out the map and the Book. The Book is our trusty travelling bible called simply “The Paciﬁc Bicycle Route”. The Book spreads the gospel of a cycling route from Brisbane to Sydney.
We will eventually rebel against its scheduling but for now our journey mimics the suggestion in the Book.
Actually we have already been naughty. We started in Rathdowney (remember?) not the Brisbane outpost of Ipswich as the Book advises and by taking the Lions Road we also veered off course.
And as the Lions Road didn’t appear on the map provided with the book we missed out on a claim to our ﬁrst authentic Triangle on that harrowing hill to the border. Triangles were the Book’s way of dealing with severe hills. The direction of the triangle went up or down to denote if was an uphill or a downhill. It also had two numbers, one inside the triangle the other outside. The number inside represented the elevation we had to climb (or descend) and the outside number was the length of the hill.
From this data we could work out that some very serious gradients lay ahead. Ten hills in all were worthy of these notorious Triangles and the word Triangle itself became synonymous with dread in our hearts. Does Bermuda have any big hills, I wondered? It might explain a lot.
Thankfully tomorrow’s ride didn’t have any examples of the shape that dares not speak its name. But the peculiar excitement of tomorrow was because the journey would take us to the coast for the ﬁrst time so we will ﬁnally get to see the ocean that gives the ride its name.
Coffs Harbour was our stop, a cool 85kms south of Grafton. So distance wise, a little less than the two big days we have just survived but we are expecting it to be a bit bumpier as we emerge from the ﬂat riverlands.
There are two ways to get from Grafton to Coffs. One was the main Brisbane Sydney road, the Paciﬁc Highway, but that road would be far too busy for our liking. So ours was the alternate way as recommended by the Book, via the town of Glenreagh and the foothills of the Dorrigo Ranges.
So much for the Book, its time for sleep. Goodnight. See you in the morning. In my dreams, I am cycling in the Sargasso Sea. A dragon gives chase but its wheels fall off. My mother reminds me that tomorrow is a school day and there is nothing Germany can do about it.
Glenn is setting the pace for the earliest riser. I am awoken by the sound of his showering at 6: 15am. I went to bed at quite a reasonable hour last night so its no big ordeal to drag myself out of the scratcher at this early hour. Plus the sun is shining proudly again today.
I am excited of the prospect of getting two new fresh tyres to guide me onwards. As soon as the Mudster vacates the shower, I am in. Washed and packed before I can really complain to management and I am ready well ahead of schedule.
Grant has barely stirred in the sack so I settle down and do some reading in the early morning sunshine. Grunty awakes and announces reveille with a loud salvo of baritone farts. The cavalry have arrived at last. The toilet becomes the key zone as we all feel the strains of the morning movement in successive waves, perhaps in Pavlovian response to Grunty’s thunderburst.
I am anxious to get going and so I am packed and ready to depart before the others. I set off early in case the bicycle collapses on its last legs leaving me to repeat some proportion of the 45 minute walk to town.
I bump and bobble my way into town. Ungainly but a mission accomplished. The tyre looks as if it has contracted an advance case of gangrene.
I immediately spot the hospital of Mulga Bill’s bicycle shop due to open at 9am. I glide through what passes for Monday morning rush-hour trafﬁc in these parts but (tyre notwithstanding) it’s not the most stressful commute I’ve ever endured on a bicycle. No-one seems to be in much of a hurry to get to their destination this pleasant morning. Plenty of time before Mulga is open for business. Time for a newspaper, breakfast and that crucial ﬁrst cup of coffee.
The lads roll into town soon after and they need little persuasion to sample the cafe’s hot wares. A very pleasant half hour is spent in drinking strong short blacks, demolishing a plate of bacon and eggs (no sign of nerves this morning) and catching up with the news of the hour in the Sydney Morning Herald.
I follow this up with a quick stroll down the road to ﬁnd that Mr Mulga has opened his shop ten minutes early (bless ‘im). I wheel my machine inside and ask him for two new tyres, please. Certainly sir, come back in a half hour and she’ll be apples. His only note of hesitation in otherwise splendid service comes when he lays eyes on the colourful spokie-dokies. But he shows his diplomatic side as he keeps his opinions of them to himself.
The lads arrive with their own machines and ask him to install additional bidden cages to hold an extra water bottle. Water intake is a crucial consideration for the ride – nothing less than two cages will do. Big Grunty, clearly thinking of his extra storage requirements, will now have three of them.
I leave Mulga to his labours and set off on a solo expedition. I am soon walking near the rowing clubs at a park on the Clarence River. I hadn’t seen the river since it welcomed us to the area yesterday afternoon. It’s a ﬁne wide ﬂow of water. Susan Island lies imposingly in the middle of its broad reaches. I couldn’t see them from where I stood, but the island is home to a large colony of fruitbats that apparently ﬂood the evening sky as they set off at dusk on their daily food hunt. Right now, no bats were to be seen as they were presumably having their morning lie-in.
Aﬁer some idle contemplation of the enviable sleeping habits of ﬂying mammals, it was time to chug up back the main street to Mulga Bill’s. He was applying the ﬁnishing touches to Glenn and Grant’s bikes as I arrived. I saw my own bike complete with sparkling pristine tyres. I was a happy man. We pay the man for his services, load the gear onto the bikes and set sail once again.
Day three was about to commence in earnest. Trafﬁc has gotten busier now the shops are open for business. It’s bumper to bumper for all of a half kilometre until we get to the bridge to cross the Clarence. For such a big river, the bridge is shockingly narrow. Only two skimpy lanes, certainly not enough room for a car to overtake a slow moving bicycle. We set out cautiously. Fortunately we time our arrival at a gap in the trafﬁc. We all cross the river without the bother of a car breathing heavily up our rear ends (or worse still attempting to overtake in a narrow space).
We are now in South Grafton at the turnoff to join the Paciﬁc Highway. We eschew this turnoff and follow the signs to the back road to Glenreagh. We quickly leave behind the light industrial southern side of Grafton and joyously greet the sight of bush once more.
It’s a good feeling with the wind at our backs. No, I’m wrong, the wind is actually in our faces, pushing against us. But headwinds can’t stop the feeling of joy, out on the road on a Monday morning, a long journey ahead, no work worries to concern us and best of all for me, full conﬁdence in my machine again. Although I’ve noticed the bike has developed a small but potentially annoying click for some unknown reason. This is just distraction and has no impact on the running of the beast, just an aesthetic consideration to deal with at some stage.
We are soon in the middle of pretty rolling hills, no climb is too strenuous. Off in the distance are the more serious peaks of the Great Dividing Range. We pass a lazy sleeping snake on the road. We try not to wake him as we glide by almost silently (click notwithstanding).
Glenreagh is the ﬁrst proper stop at the halfway mark some 42kms south of Grafton. One kilometre out of town we see a welcoming sign advertising the products of the Glenreagh bakery. With the time quickly approaching noon, the effects of two hours cycling means our stomachs are grumbling and crying out for attention by the time we hit Glenreagh. It has warmed up considerably too, its about 25 degrees and sunny so my brow is quite sweaty as I park my bike next to the bakery and wander inside lured by the pied piper smells.
Two meat pies and a slice of cake later, my hunger is well assuaged while a medley of chocolate milk, coke and water tend to my various sugar and thirst needs. We sit outside at wooden tables and quietly consider this small pretty town. A few kids gather by a wall, one or two patrons arrive at the bakery, a wedding dressmaker’s shop is closed.
Not much to disturb the sleepy hollowness of the town. The rail tracks stand empty. The branch line was built up the hills to Dorrigo to ferry down the timber but it is disused thanks to a bill passed in NSW’s parliament in 1993. There is talk of re-opening it as a tourist attraction. The town is also on the main Brisbane to Sydney line so Hugh will also have his minute or so here later on. Next Friday to be precise, only four days away. But we’ll leave Hugh to stew in his Monday work juices for now.
Refreshed, we are ready for the second half of the day. Another 40kms or so into Coffs. From jacarandas to bananas we go. Glenn was hoping for a bit of a cheat on this leg of our journey. His Sydney based brother-in-law is an airline pilot who does the Northern NSW runs for Kendall airlines. Today, he is driving from Grafton to Coffs with the intention of spending the night with us before he continues his journey home to Sydney tomorrow. Glenn is hoping he will overtake us and relieve us of his panniers for some portion of the remaining journey. It doesn’t work out. Glenn had not been able to establish contact with the brother-in-law on the mobile and when they ﬁnally did connect, it turns out he was zooming down the faster Paciﬁc Highway by-passing us. As a last minute change of plan, he had decided to go back to Sydney today. Panniers would have to remain steadfast on the bikes.
As the afternoon unfolds, it becomes a more blowy and hilly so it’s a tougher couple of hours riding. The terrain starts to become rainforest and it’s deliciously cool under the shade of the big trees. More settlements too in this half as we follow the descending Orara river. We pass through Nana Glen (not sure if this is named for Muddy’s grandmother) then it’s into Coramba. Aye, Coramba. Coramba is a pretty hill town 15kms out of Coffs. Its one and only pub proves to have too much magnetic attraction for me so I am forced to dismount. Grunty joins me in a quick libation. The Muddy one is perhaps still disgruntled at losing out on his help and pedals past the pub.
One quick middie of Victoria Bitter in the beer garden later, we are fortiﬁed for the big hill outside town. (This is a posthumous justiﬁcation for the beer, at the time we were blissfully unaware of a big hill outside town). I disappear to the loo to ﬂush out various liquids and when I return I ﬁnd no Grunty. He has already ﬂed the premises. Perhaps he was worried I might want to stay and order another beer. I set off and give chase to the boys.
I am immediately greeted by the big hill just out of town. I’m glad we didn’t consider that second beer as I sweat my way up its gruelling side. Thanks to my smaller bike chain, I have the ideal equipment for climbing so it’s not too long before I haul them both in.
Trafﬁc is noticeably busier as we enter the Coffs catchment. Coffs Harbour is the biggest town on the NSW north coast and it is fanning rapidly out into the nearby hills as its population booms. We swing around a corner and are faced with an awesome view. We are at the top of the hill leading into town and it’s our ﬁrst glimpse of the Paciﬁc Ocean away in the distance behind the towers of Coffs tourist palaces. Banana plantations spread for miles below us overlapping the burgeoning suburbs. Our cameras get their ﬁrst proper going over of the trip.
Our only task left is a pleasant one; a freewheel down the hill and into town. It had a name, Red Hill, and though we didn’t realise it at the time, it was a Triangle hill down to sea level but hard work only for those travellers going in the opposite direction to us. It is not as enjoyable as it ought to be due to clogged up trafﬁc and constant roadworks with a furious flagman determined to slow our progress. Doesn’t matter too much, going downhill is one of the great thrills of cycling. The bikes are capable of great speeds in these conditions and despite the roadworks we have little difﬁculty in breaching the speed limit notching up 70 kph in a 60 zone.
All too quickly we are at the bottom of the hill and ploughing through Coffs’ interminable suburbs. We cross the Paciﬁc Highway and head into the business centre of town. However our primary business objective is getting accommodation for the night. Nothing too obvious of that nature slap bang in the middle of town. So I lead us out of town towards the beach, thinking that places to stay should be more plentiful here. We cycle onwards without spotting anything vaguely resembling a motel or even an advertisement for one. My faith in my instincts begins to waver. Just as we begin to consider retreating, we spot a backpacker’s hostel on the other side of the road. Having established it has private rooms not dormitory style (an aging cyclist needs his solid eight hours sleep), we take a closer look. The rooms are spartan and prison-like. Four walls, the same number of beds and not much else. But all tired things considered, that’s all we need. And at $16 a head its not about to bust a bank anytime soon.
The hostel also has a laundrette and intemet services so we are happy enough to take it. The proprietor leads us to the back ofﬁce where the bikes are stowed away snugly and safely for the night. My most immediate task (that is, once I’ve checked out the comfort factor of the bed) is to seek out the cleaning facilities and throw the bike shorts and a few grotty t-shirts into the wash. Then I have the anxious task of ﬁnding free space on an overcrowded washing line as a plethora of backpackers’ essentials crowd its rope. I judiciously move along a few assorted jocks and socks and make room for my own minutiae.
Back in the room I ﬁnd Mudster poring over the details of a town map. It is late in the evening but still bright enough for us to check out the beach a further kilometre up the road. Ever optimistic, Glenn and I have changed into bathers for the occasion. Grunty is obviously more sensitive to the temperature differential between air and water and he abstains from changing costume.
We get to the surf beach quickly enough. It’s a splendid sight with big breakers rolling in from the ocean. Muttonbird Island nestles serenely in the background and the town’s marina provides additional colour. Only problem is the surf looks a bit rough for our liking so we move on to the slightly more sedate beach near the jetty. Here the breakwater leaven the effect of the waves and its more inviting to jump in. Initially I need some goading from a willing Glenn but eventually I drop my feeble protest and join him for a splash in the briny. I employ my usual tactic when faced with an ocean dip ie run like hell and dive in before the body can sense what’s going on.
After I cope with the initial shock, I realise it’s actually warmer than the swimming pools we sampled in Casino and Grafton. We enjoy jumping about in the waves and a few pathetic attempts at body surﬁng. We get out having failed to convince Grant of the error of his dry ways. I thank Glenn for having successfully goading me to get into the water. I feel a lot better now I’ve survived the brisk sensations of the sea.
Liquid therapy of a different kind is now called for. We walk back along the beach as twilight takes hold. Time to retreat to the nearby Pier Hotel. Two schooners each is our traditional pre-dinner bill of fare. Grunty tries his hand at one of the ever-present pokies and after a winning start ends up coming out even in his loaded battle of wills. We return to the backpackers to change clothes and take turns to log onto the Internet to describe the events of the last three days to various interested parties.
Hunger soon calls for Glenn and I. Grunty is too busy writing his own mammoth story on the Net and we leave him to his virtual pleasures. We stroll back towards the beach. It’s a lively area full of cafes and restaurants of various ethnicities. We knew we would have to take advantage of this surfeit of variety, as it is unlikely to be repeated in the homogenous culture of the mostly small towns we would be staying in for the remainder of our journey.
Earlier on the way back from the pub, we had eannarked an Indian restaurant as our preferred destination for “tea” (the coinage for the evening meal is Grunty’s but I like its homely qualities). But when we returned to the Indian, it was dead to the world. Open for business, yes, but lacking in the sort of atmosphere that only the alchemy of patronage can provide. And we didn’t feel like being trailblazers.
By contrast, the Thai restaurant up the road was well served on this score and was throbbing indoors and out on the pavement with a gemütlich hum. Ever slavish to prevailing trends and suspicious of the Indian’s emptiness, we follow the dictates of fashion and plonk ourselves down in the outdoors section of the Thai in one of the few remaining available tables. They have heaters on full blast which is on the verge of being necessary as the temperature dips with the month of May merrily approaching. Muddy and I order some tasty Thai starters and watch out for the approach of Grunty given he is unaware of our changed plan.
He sees us ﬁrst, no doubt lured to us by the smells of spring rolls and curry puffs with whose arrival he has superbly coincided. We order more starters in deference to our arriviste and while we are in the mood, go on to order a ﬁne selection of curries to complete the repast.
Discussion of the day is centred on tomorrow’s impending Triangles. Three of them in all, denoting three big climbs we will have to contend with. Going by the Book, our route will take us back inland to the Bellinger river and over the hills and dirt roads to our destination of Bowraville. Every last scrap of curry is licked clean from the bowl and as the cool air prevails over the heater we slink back to the hostel.
A few travellers are huddled around the television in silence watching some nondescript but loud action movie. As the body count grows in teeveeland, I slump down in the kitchen and attempt to scribe in my journal before a wave of tiredness sneaks up on me from behind and delivers a knock-out blow. I have just enough energy to ﬁnd my bed. As I seek the beyond, I disappear in circles of wheels within wheels, pedalling onwards to some unreachable centre of gravity. Suddenly two large pumpkins wearing lipstick and sunglasses appear and sing a falsetto rendition of the Volga Boatman song. Russian tanks storm by quickly and splash mud all over me and the bike. I sneak out through a hole in my pyjamas.
In November I drove from Mount Isa to Brisbane via Winton. A few weeks later I was back down the same road heading back to Brisbane for Christmas, again taking two days to do the 1900km drive, but this time stopping at Blackall overnight. This first photo is of the Blue Heeler Hotel in Kynuna, 160km north of Winton. The historic little timber building can trace its existence back to the 1880s when it was a Cobb and Co post. Thirsty travellers still seek out its wares, though it was shut as I drove past mid-morning.
After a long stretch of flat country south of Cloncurry it was good to see some hills again north of Winton. These mesa-like structures remind me of the American west.
Recent rains means there is plenty of grass so the cattle are well fed and fat again in the West. The two to three year drought was broken by heavy falls across the region.
A brief glimpse of the Boeing 747 at the Qantas Founders Museum as I drove past Longreach. The Museum tells the story of the founders of Qantas and the 747 is pride of place. All Qantas Boeing 747-400 aircraft carry the word “Longreach” as part of the livery as well as their city name, signifying the “long reach” of the aircraft and the town where Qantas commenced operations.
Just 27km east of Longreach is Ilfracombe. This tiny town is home to the 100-year-old Wellshot Hotel, one of the most famous pubs in the outback (I stayed a raucous night there in 2002) and also the Ilfracombe Machinery and Heritage Museum which has artifacts dotted along the side of the road, known as The Great Machinery Mile. The Museum is home to everything from standing engines to earthmoving machinery and illustrates the evolution of the pastoral and transport industries.
About halfway between Longreach and Barcaldine I stumbled upon the appropriately named Christmas Creek. I felt very festive in this part of Tinseltown.
I spent the night in Blackall which at 900km to Mount Isa and 1000km to Brisbane is the closest town to the halfway mark. Blackall is the biggest town in the central west, developed on the sheep’s back. I visited the Woolscour, too late for the last tour of the day but I was able to roam the grounds for free. The Woolscour operated commercially from 1908 to 1978 and was restored in 1989 by the Blackall Historical Woolscour Association. The plant has the only intact steam-powered wool washing plant left in Australia.
Blackall’s association with wool is underscored by Australia’s most famous shearer Jackie Howe. In 1892 at a property outside Blackall, Howe shore a record of 321 sheep in 7 hours 40 minutes. A memorial statue is located outside Blackall’s Universal Garden Centre in Shamrock St. Inside is a gallery, with a historic display, relating to Howe and local history. Howe was a committed trade unionist and active during the shearer strikes of 1891 and 1894. After he died in 1920, Queensland Premier T. J. Ryan wrote a telegram to Howe’s widow, “I have lost a true and trusted friend and Labor has lost a champion”.
There wasn’t much water in the evocatively named Barcoo River when I went to check it out in Blackall. The first white explorer in the region, Sir Thomas Mitchell, gave it a different name when he arrived in 1846, calling it the Victoria, after Britain’s monarch. This was because Mitchell thought the north-flowing stream might be a “river leading to India”, in other words, cross the northern part of the continent before emptying into the Indian Ocean as the “Victoria River” already named in the Northern Territory. Mitchell’s second-in-command Edmund Kennedy later followed the course of the river, finding it turned abruptly south-west and ending up in the Lake Eyre Basin. Kennedy renamed it the Aboriginal word Barcoo.
I was greeted by a moody and beautiful dawn the following morning as I set off south on the second half of my journey down the Landsborough Highway.
About halfway between Blackall and Tambo I crossed the Wild Dog Barrier Fence. The fence was built in the 1880s to keep dingoes out of the south-east part of the continent to protect the sheep flocks of southern Queensland. It is one of the longest structures in the world and is the world’s longest fence. It stretches 5614 km east to west from Jimbour on the Darling Downs near Dalby ending west of Eyre peninsula on the Nullarbor Plain at Nundroo, South Australia. It has not been completely successful at keeping out the dingoes but is still regularly maintained.
After 12 hours of driving I arrived in Brisbane. I was reminded again that evening of the festive season as I walked down the Queen St Mall right in to the middle of a Christmas pageant and parade. I didn’t hang around with the Gingerbread Man and the elves for long being very thirsty after two days in the saddle and very much ready to “bend the arm”. Cheers.