Brisbane to Sydney by bicycle in 2001: Day 3 – Grafton to Coffs Harbour

About to sample the waters in Coff Harbour at the end of Day 3.

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.

Day 2 adventures  Day 3  Day 4 adventures


2 thoughts on “Brisbane to Sydney by bicycle in 2001: Day 3 – Grafton to Coffs Harbour

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