Monday, 14 May 2012

Home

So, I've been home for 10 days now and it's bloody cold. Strangely cold because it's now the middle of May, with plenty of lush growth and flowers, and yet the temperature struggles to reach double figures. I reassembled the bike and took it into my usual shop for a once-over, where the mechanics were more interested in how the bike had held up, rather than my experiences. I didn't have the heart to tell Neil his three hour cleaning session had been for nought, as the bicycle hadn't been inspected. This weekend I rode to Edinburgh and got soaked, frozen and buffeted by a chilly wind in both directions. Still, it was good to be back on Scottish roads, with courteous drivers and amongst familiar sensations (notably birdsong and the smell of rain). So, I cycled 3,097 miles in Australia, changed the chain twice, suffered the same number of punctures and lost 11 lbs in the process. I only lost one pound when crossing the States. I think that says something about the better quality and/or larger portions there. Don't know what country to tour next and I'm open to suggestions. Possibly Europe, Japan or New Zealand. The photos I took can be viewed at www.shutterfly.com. Go to "my account", put in "zoz261@yahoo.com" and "golden" as the password and you can see all 374 of them as a slideshow. Thanks for reading, thanks for all the comments and I'll let you know about future plans.

Friday, 4 May 2012

Shanghai to Glasgow

Finally able to post on here - several pages at once. Will update in about a week. As you can tell from the title, I did make it home eventually. Very long day. Although the flight wasn't until 12.30, I was up at 6 because they had told me to be at the airport at 8. No available seats on the metro - do people live on the metro? You have to be assertive here when leaving a train, due to people surging forward in this ill-mannered environment. I could never live here what with all the cultural differences especially rudeness, population density and flat-chested women. Hadn't actually been given a new ticket and worried I didn't really have a seat. Although I didn't have to pay for a new flight I did have to pay 1000 Yuan to immigration. Led into a small room by a police woman, where I had to wait for ages (good thing I arrived so early) and sign lots of forms in Mandarin. Breakfast in the airport cost £9! Made sure to queue up in plenty of time at departures. Old Chinese man next to me fidgeted like crazy - digging elbows, commandeering the arm rest, farts, musical yawns and lip smacks after every mouthful. If squeamish, ignore this next sentence. The toilet floor became wetter and wetter, but forgot to put my shoes on each time I used it. I had a window seat not over the wing! Not much to see out the window - thousands of miles of brown nothingness, like this part of the world hasn't been finished. Watched The Reader, Trust and The Perfect Host, all of which were very good. Having seen virtually no wildlife in China, fascinated by a bird of prey hovering over a tiny strip of green between tarmac at Heathrow. Exiting a tube in London (transferring between terminals) a woman on the platform barred my exit. She said "sorry" and moved aside. Back to pleasantries! Couldn't wangle a transfer to Glasgow and had to pay through the nose (£200). Lovely Laura greeted me at Glasgow airport and whisked me and my trusty steed back to my flat. Finally crashed at 1am having been up for 26 hours.

Shanghai

This post should have been entitled "Shanghai to Glasgow" and the reason it is not will soon become apparent. Den den den... The breakfast buffet mostly consisted of hot, Chinese fare and while my co-diners wolfed down three course meals, I plumped for the only 'white food' on offer - toast and croissants. The service was awful, but I suppose one just has to accept different levels of courtesy, eye contact and facial movements when in foreign lands. I was seated at a table occupied by a young woman who didn't look at me once, which I found uncomfortable considering we were the only two diners at that table and sitting directly opposite each other. I decided never to return to this heathen land. I thought there was plenty of time before my flight and paid no heed to the word "London" in the PA announcement. I've missed several flights before and will, in all probability, miss several more in the future. I loathe queues and love dreaming; a catastrophic combination. When I rolled up at the gate, it was closed. I woke up then alright. My protestations fell on deaf ears and were met with impassive expressions. A woman motioned to the plane, which sat there the other side of a pane of glass, and explained the doors were closed. I pleaded and pleaded. Nothing doing. "My wife's aving a baby!" Nothing. They wouldn't put me on the plane, but they got my bike OFF the plane though! Maybe they thought it contained a bomb and I'd missed the flight on purpose. So, I returned to this heathen land... The next flight to London was not for two days. Two whole days. My mind played back the fateful dreamtime saga over and over. Maybe I was an aboriginie in a previous life and this also explains my penchance for going 'cycleabout'. The security people told me I would have to stump up 1,000 Yuan for the privilege of staying in the People's Republic for a further two nights, paybale on departure. I had no idea how much this amounted to. However, somehow no extra fee was required for another plane seat. The only other things to sort out were to (a) email Laura and tell her not to pick me up at the airport tonight and (b) sort out accommodation. To do this I needed wi fi and this is not an easy task in a huge, busy Chinese airport. Eventually I found the business centre, where I could borrow an ethernet cable to enable a good connection. Phew! The email was easily dealt with, but the accommodation... I didn't want to pay for a hotel... Would I be able to access the Couchsurfing website? Den den den. It worked! Phew phew phew! By placing a couch request, I knew the welcoming words of the lovely, generous folks on there would soon give me the warm fuzzies - and so they did. Max was the first to reply, just a few minutes later, and I took him up on the offer straight away. He supplied his address and the business centre staff gave me a street map. First of all I took the bike to left luggage, where it only cost 100 Yuan for 48 hours (conveniently 1 quid = 10 Yuan). Especially coming from Oz, everything seems dirt cheap here - and the maximum subway fare is 70p. I didn't see a single Westerner on any of the three trains. It took two hours to get from airport to suburb and they looked close on the map. According to Wikipedia, as I found out later, Shanghai is the most populous city on earth. At 23 million, give or take a couple, there are more people here than in the whole of Australia. A local helped me to find my way and accompanied me on the journey, which was much like the London Tube and just as packed. The man's name of course was unpronouncable, but he said everyone who learns English is given a pseudoymn (like the Taiwanese in Cairns) and his was Fred. Fred worked on an oil rig 28 days on, 28 days off, and he was presently en route to his wife in Beijing, a 13 hour overnight train journey. He was crazy about Britain, its history and language; and untypically friendly. Surfaced at the subway station to be greeted to my first proper view of Shanghai : highrises in every direction, noise, people everywhere, rubbish, dirt, fog and drizzle. Luckily the street signs were in English as well as Chinese characters and I was able to follow the map to Max's apartment on the 15th floor (only halfway up) of one of the highrises. Many people travel by bicycle and moped, none of whom have lights or obey traffic lights. Drivers honk their horns repeatedly, pedestrians shout back, but somehow it seems to work; although saying that, Max told me later he had witnessed many accidents. Max's address included a room number and, although bludgers can't be choosers, I was worried it might literally be a room in a student flat or something and I would be sleeping on the floor. It was actually a nice flat and I had my own room. Max told me another surfer had just vacated the bed that morning, but "He didn't seem too ugly" and he had no clean duvet covers. Like I care about stuff like that. Max is a German urban design student (hence his misuse of the word ugly) and is currently writing his thesis as part of an exchange between Berlin and Shahghai universities. He told me how emails are rigorously checked for dissent by the state and that another student who criticized Chinese architectural plaguarism was paid a visit by the police. He whisked me off to a Chinese supermarket (I say Chinese, because there are many other nation's food stores here) and my camera was kept busy with the alien foodstuffs, such as vast arrays of seaweed, mushrooms, beef jerky, dried fruits and tofu. I couldn't find any sweets that were familiar and there was literally only one brand of chocolate! Max delighted my senses with a spicy vegetarian feast, a medley of weird plants and nuts, followed by even weirder lychees. In the bathroom the toilet roll had no roll (ie it only consisted of paper and had no hole) and what it is it with the peeing mirrors in this country? One last look at the view from my window, which, at night, was straight out of Bladerunner, and then a much-needed sleep.

Melbourne to Shanghai

Being such a dutiful boyfriend, although he didn't need to rise early, Howard breakfasted with Sandra, who had to be out by 7. Flax seed porridge with bluberries, raw cocoa and bee pollen was that breakfast! I do hope it was as good for me as they said, because it certainly didn't taste it. On departing, Sandra said she would probably see me in another 20 years time, as I estimated that was how long ago we'd last met, and I thanked her for the mental image of myself as an OAP that her charming thought had evoked. Howard took my precious cargo and I to the airport and during the journey he put forward his anti-government stance and annarchistic leanings. I forget exactly how he put it, but it was something along the lines of by voting for any of the world's major political parties, we are agreeing to being raped if we are put in prison for whatever reason; ie no one is to be trusted and every system fails. Thanks for another unpleasant image - I'll never look at a ballot paper again in quite the same light. Bizarrely, he not only works for a government body, he is an American who lives in Australia and is employed by the British Department of Transport. Something to do with overseeing the production of Asian cars, so they are compatible with British laws. I told him about my manifesto : not bothering anyone, riding my bicycle and burying my head in the sand when it comes to the world's attrocities. Howard might be cynical and jaded when it comes to human beings, but I've never met such a doting pet owner. He had never had much contact with cats before and always saw himself as a 'dog person', yet when a stray black cat came a knocking a few years ago, he and Sandra didn't know who his owners were and decided to let him stay. Now Badda Bing is the centre of their universe, they pander to his every whim and coo over him like a baby. The iconic Jaws image caught my eye on a poster in the airport toilet, with the words "Some things aren't meant to fly" - underneath some wit had scrawled "Like toothpaste and soap" - and then went on to talk about checking one's luggage for dangerous items. So then, a window seat over the wing again on another interminable China Eastern flight, with its slapstick action films, bland airline food; and in-flight magazines only in Mandarin, although hardly surprising with 99% Chinese passengers. To help pass the time I finally got some use out of the huge Rough Guide to Australia that I've been lugging around with me. There was a condensed history and I also learned some new slang words, such as : Banana bender - Queenslander Beyond the black stump - Outback Budgie smugglers - Speedos Warm fuzzies - feeling of contentment It was when reunited with the Pudong terminal building disappearing in each direction as far as the eye could see, that Orwell came into my mind. The Chinese remind me of the pigs in Animal Farm, who want to be like capitalist Westerners, but their corrupt communism and cultural differences hold them back. Whereas the few white faces (the non-pig farm animals) you see in this country stare back at you with the look of frightened rabbits. China is after all Australia's employer. Funny watching the pushing and shoving in the airport. In between the endless series of moving walkways they hustle and bustle past each other on SLIM, spindly frames and centres of gravities at shoulder level. At Customs a man queue-jumped and I protested, to which he held up his hand as if to say "Get back, foreign infidel!" Had to collect my bike as I had a stop-over here, but fortunately my hotel was right in the airport, so I could take the box on a trolley all the way to my room. This is how the conversation went at reception : "Passport". "Please." "Passport." "Please." "Passport." "Please." Then she smiled. However, it wasn't the swanky hotel that I had been allocated, but the motel opposite. It was pretty nice though and not a pictureless brick wall in site. The lady at the desk here (who had a number badge not a name badge) was none too friendly either (I guess it's just a cultural difference) and when she gave me a card with a four digit number on it and I asked if this was the room number, she looked at me like I was an idiot. The first number referred to the establishment and the other three pertained to the room. Her non-verbal language seemed to be saying, "You must be really stupid not to realise that". For liquid refreshment, two tea bags were all the room offered. I couldn't be bothered to go all the way back to reception to ask for coffee and milk. There was a full-length mirror behind the toilet, so I could watch myself urinating and this is how the wording ran on a sign stuck to a small, glass table : "Friendship prompt : utslightly carefully, please not heavy pressure" Although there was internet access, the blog was unattainable (I learned later that all blogs are blocked by the State) and out of curiosity I tried to access Facebook. Social networking sites are verboten as well; Laura couldn't survive here!

Melbourne

Badda Bing, Sandra and Howard's neurotic black cat, meowed me to wakefulness, demanding affection, and then the human contingent repaired to a French cafe for croissants. Talking of cafes, later on in Subway (during a typical hunt for wi fi) while waiting to be attended to, a delivery man asked me, "Foot long or six inch?" A bit of a personal question I thought and replied, "Coffee". What a beautiful, crisp, still, autumnal morning! And how refreshing, after northern Queensland's 30 degree/75% humidity. Left the couple to their coupley Sunday activities, to stroll into the CBD, taking in the urban scenery, which again, invigorated the senses compared to boondock blandness. So many young, SLIM locals engaged in sport, from stretching exercises to Australian Rules Football - and many people seem to 'go for a walk', at least if their jogging outfits are anything to go by. I had more sedate pastimes in mind, such as typing and art appreciation, and most of the afternoon was gobbled up in the confusingly named National Gallery of Victoria. White Australian, Indigenous, Polynesian and International heritages, both and new were represented here, and all beautifully laid out. Perhaps sensing my need for social interaction, it was then that I met The Crazy Lady. The Crazy Lady befriended me outside the art gallery, where I had sat down on a wall wondering what to do next. I had wanted to see the penguin parade at Philip Island, but Sandra had told me to see the little critters returning from a day's fishing at sunset, required an expensive ticket. Failing that, I had thought about taking in the sights at the supposedly trendy neighbourhood of St Kilda. However, it was nearly 5 pm, quite cold and overcast, and The Crazy Lady persuaded me to join her for sushi. Exhausted by keyboard-tapping and culturally sated, yet still in need of calorific nourishment (and not wishing Sandra to feel obligated in full-on feast production again) I spent my remaining dollars in a restaurant called Chocolate Buddha. En route my guide stopped wheeling her bottle green bicycle to hug a tree. "Was that your special tree?" I ventured. "No, I had a sudden impulse," she answered, with a crazy look in her crazy, green eyes. The Crazy Lady illuminated the mouthwatering morcels with tales from her crazy life. Unusual in that she lived in her native city; but it was not ever so. She had worked illegally in the US as a building site labourer. This was how she became interested in architecture, and now has her own practice. She had designed and renovated structures in many countries, and was currently supervising a team "beautiful" local men in Vanuatu to construct homes of hr deign with tadpole-shape windows (she showed me pictures on her phone). When I told her about the feline character behind my cartoon and greetings card business, she declared her aversion to the species. However, it was when I explained the finer points of Couchsurfing that she became suspicious of me. The naturists in Cairns were too much for her and her crazy eyes took on a whole new crazed expression. She rose from the table, stated, "You're freaking me out!" and left me to pay the substantial bill. Full in every sense, I returned to Brunswick on the excellent tram sys tem. My hosts and I drunk a little of the peach wine The Crazy Lady had suggested we drink with our meal; but pretty soon we all turned in, as early Monday mornings lay before each of us.

Sunday, 29 April 2012

Cairns to Melbourne

Returned to the world of textiles. At the bike shop it took 15 minutes for a man to dismantle and box my bike, and squeeze in most of my luggage. This had taken Tony, Laura and I several hours. However, presumably no-one weighed it in Glasgow or London because I didn't have any more stuff, yet now it was over the 23 kg limit, and this was only ascertained after it had been taped up - at the airport. The 8 kg discrepancy would have cost $150, so obviously I took most of my luggage and added it to my carry-on baggage. The woman who dealt with me was none too friendly (and hardly looked up from her monitor) but the man next to her was, and he lent me scissors, tape and a bigger bag to take on the plane. I became increasingly stressed, ripping everything out of the box, reweighing it a few times and getting covered in bike oil in the process. Dragged the box to the oversize baggage section (I wasn't paying $3 for an airport trolley) and returned to the desk to criticize the woman for her lack of eye contact. She smiled sweetly and said she would take my advice onboard. Unfortunately, when atempting to pass through security, I realised that in my anxiety I'd included bike tools with the carry-on luggage, and, of course, they wouldn't let me do that. So, somewhat sheepishly, I had to return to the woman previously mentioned to ask for the box to be recalled, for it to be opened up AGAIN and taped up AGAIN. This time she smiled a lot and fixed her gaze on me. More dramas in the departure lounge, where it seemed ridiculous that passengers who had been given allocated seats queued up before being called forward. Stupid idiots, I thought. I hate standing in queues and ignored the announcement for our flight over the PA, as it would surely take ages for all the boarding cards to be processed. Five minutes later I heard my name being called over the PA and had to rush to make the plane... Although I'd asked for a window seat, I forgot about the wings, which obscured my view. However, (a) it was mostly cloudy through out the journey and (b) the man next to me said we would fly through the Outback. I had hoped to retrace my route along the coast, and get a perverse kick from measuring this three-hour flight against seven weeks of gruelling, sweaty toil. Peter, my original host in Melbourne, had suffered a relapse of his ME-type illness and asked me to try and find someone else to stay with for my remaining two nights in the country. As luck would have it, my older brother, Anthony, has a friend in the city, Sandra. She and her boyfriend, Howard, picked me up from the airport and took me to their place in Brunswick. Sandra cooked up a fabulous Spanish seafood affair, featuring muscles, prawns and beans. A serious foodie, she uses the finest ingredients in her cooking and we even drank white wine from a different type of glass to the red. They also have this Japanese fridge, the door of which can be opened from either side, as although it opens like normal, it's hinged on both sides. Whereas, Howard is into his hi fi and had searched the planet for the best kind of speakers, which are huge and individually shaped. Stupidly I itched my back to relieve the sunburn and it got worse and worse. Eventually I restrained myself from touching it again and the pain subsided during another uncomfortable sleep.

Saturday, 28 April 2012

Cairns 2

Received this SMS from Kelly in Yarra Glen, Victoria : Hi Adrian, I have been reading your blog and just wanted you to know I have found it thoroughly entertaining and amusing. I wish I wasn't one of your first stops because then I would have known you liked a drink and your sarcastic sense of humour (at times) would have cracked me up whilst telling stories of the past few months!! Perhaps, I could greeted you at the front door with a towel whilst pointing at my watch! Argh, but in my case, it was I who expected you a day later... Ha ha... I think you will be nearing the end of your journey soon - congratulations... Thanks for letting me read your adventures on-line... And providing so many laughs. The sunburn was less sore, although it has been replaced by sunstroke and I felt queasy all day. Mike took his accolytes on a tour of the area, via a swim on the beach, a somewhat pedestrian walk along a river bank and another swim in his development's private pool. We bumped into an older homosexual (if you hadn't already guessed, Mike is of the fraternity) walking his dog, who must be jealous of all the young, studs passing through Mike's back door. There is a Yorkey's Knob Festival (if you didn't know the place you might think the second two words were joined rather than the first pair) where they crown a king and queen, or maybe a queen and queen, I forget. A festival organiser tried to change the name to Yorkey's Beach Festival, but the Knobs weren't having any of it. There's no point in putting up signs promoting the occasion, because they are stolen as soon as they are... ahem... erected. Being naked is, of course, soon forgotten, and I never caught anyone looking at anyone else's bits. It might be different (for me at least) if it were a mixed affair, yet ironically this could have made us feel less comfortable. Mike is keen to point out he hosts women and couples too, although I'm not sure how often. Really, though, what does it matter? He's gay and likes being naked around other, mostly younger, hot males (somehow I got in too). What of it? We all entered into this situation freely - and Mike makes it perfectly clear what guests are letting themselves in for, so those who haven't read his profile properly can back out. Many people would never try Couchsurfing and many more would never enter into a naked environment with complete strangers. Even a champion surfer such as myself, did so reluctantly, as the idea set off alarm bells. He must be a sexual pervert surely? I thought. Well, all I can say is that he is a thoroughly decent bloke; generous with his time and food, interested in other people and a natural bon viveur. Later I swam at another beach, read and people-watched. It's a difficult life. The east coast of Australia is extremely well set up for leisure activities. Just about every public place I've visited, such as parks, nature reserves, beaches, highway rest stops, etc, offers canopied picnic tables, free gas-powered barbecues, information signs, drinking water, manicured foliage, footpaths and so forth. I know I am on holiday, but imagine it would difficult to endure the daily grind in such a leisure-orientated environment and with this climate. The second beach was surrounded by a Stepford Wivesesque suburb, where dull, grey houses had been laid out in dull streets with names like Sea View and Bay Road, planted with evenly spaced trees, and where immaculately turned out, wholesome children skateboarded, cycled and got up to no mischief at all. Whereas Yorkey's has a homely, spunky vibe. I rode around a boardwalked wetland too, although the humidity wasn't conducive to nature appreciation. No way I could live in this prickly heat and don't see the point of spending 99% of your time in air-conditioned buildings and vehicles to avoid it. When returning to Melbourne tomorrow, I won't miss the nausea-inducing smells of carrion and fried tomatoes either. I saved a spider, that was being carried away by ants at each leg. The spider was so much bigger in comparison, even to eight ants, yet it was powerless in their grip. I couldn't stand by and watch that happen. The treefrog, which Mike relocated to the garden, promptly came back inside to exactly the same place - sucker padded to the inside of a lampshade, where it is motionless and perhaps wishes to hibernate. Mesmerised by the family of three bigmouths as well, which sleep in a tree during the day and hunt at night. They look a bit like owls, except with wider mouths obviously. Mike showed us an hour-long video of the snake that consumed a rat, about three times its width, in his front yard. He volunteers at a wildlife hospital, but unlike me, doesn't save creatures being eaten by others. In the evening we were joined by fresh meat in the muscular form of a young Swiss boy, Micha. Never mind that there wasn't much room, a mattress was made available for this young, tanned adonis, with dark brown curls and long eyelashes. Seriously though, he was very nice, and another delightful, al fresco meal took place. We enjoyed fat, thick sausages; and then we had dinner. Seriously though, I really do believe there's something to be said for socializing sans clothes. It feels natural somehow, and of course, like wearing a school uniform, it's a great leveller. Later we jumped in the hot tub, somewhat incongrous in northen Queensland, but still restful and reviving. Michael unleashed his collection of rubber ducks and I played with one that was actually more like a snake. Seriously though, it was a lot of fun and I'm so glad I threw caution and clothes to the wind by staying there.

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Cairns

No more cycling... apart from the 13 miles back into town to catch a ferry to Green Island. (I bumped into the Taiwanese 'boys', as Mike calls them, at tourist information, but didn't recognise them with clothes on.) This is a bit of a cop out in terms of reef life, although it's cheaper and nearer than the outer reef. Thanks to Angela and Dave in Townsville, I also had a 30% discount voucher for this particular boat operator. The ride took 45 minutes; and 90% of the other passengers were from China or her eastern neighbours, some of whom didn't take part in swimming or diving, without which the $80 fare seemed a bit pointless. I, of course got my money's worth and snorkelled about for hours, marvelling at the increedible variety of fish, coral, turtles and even a small shark. Some of the fish confound the senses with their rainbow colours, and there were those ones that look like their all head and fin.(In other wildlife news, I saw a dead flying fox in the road today, which is a type of bat.) The remainder of the swimmers wore stinger suits, wet suits or at least T shirts. Because I only had the T shirt I wore and no towel, and didn't think the jellyfish would pose much of a risk (three stung tourists so far this year) I swum topless. Green Island gives the impression of being artificial, as it's sandy, minute and totally given over to tourism, with wooden walkways, cafes, shops, etc. The best part of the day was still riding my bike, even on main roads and even after the completion of the 3,000 mile tour. You'd think I'd be sick of it, but not a bit of it. Back at the nudist colony, Roger and Mikey cooked up a vast, Taiwanese feast, the multifarious flavours of which tingled on the taste buds. I asked what the constituents of one dish were, and Roger replied that apart from pork and fine noodles, he'd added Taiwanese Five Spice Powder. I supplied a box of wine, and did the washing up - or at least until my back starteed playing up. As the evening progressed, sunburn from the snorkeling got worse and worse. I didn't sleep much tonight, as I had to sleep on my front and couldn't find a comfortable position. I'd pooh-poohed shelling out $7 on a stinger suit, and hadn't even considered the sun's rays on an overcast day. Will I never learn?

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Innisfail to Cairns

Tarried a while in Innisfail to watch the Anzac Day parade. About a thousand people took part and a similar number watched - in such a small town. Pity the poor kids who, unlike everyone else, didn't really get a day off, still had to get up early, wear their uniforms, march up and down and listen to boring speeches, etc. There were kilts, flags, banners, wheelchairs, veterans and a marching band. Many people wore medals, including small children, presumably passed down the generations. Last day of proper cycling and visited a couple of beauty spots off the highway; Josephine Falls and The Boulders. Swam in cool mountain water and drank a latte in someone's house overlooking fabulous greenery. When I say someone's house, it was a cafe in a house, with seating on the verandah and their toilet was also for public use. Crazy Australians. Only they were actually an elderly couple from Yorkshire. Later on, my lunch of cold chips dipped in vegemite is not to be recommended. And so to Cairns. I'll be honest, I had been trying to find an alternative place to stay. I'd been getting cold feet about the prospect of being in a naturist environment (and jelly knees, watery tummy and shrivelled up willy). It was obviously meant to be however, as I couldn't find anyone else. Mike lives in a beachside district 10 miles to the north, called Yorkey's Knob. No puns please. He had two other surfers from Taiwan staying, with the (additional English) names Roger and Mikey. All three pulled sarongs on when I arrived and then quickly dropped them. I had a cold shower outside (no puns) as this was the only option, towelled myself down, didn't put any clothes on and joined the happy throng. There was nothing to it, we didn't mention it, it didn't feel sleazy or embarrassing and conversed as normal. Mike lives in an open-plan house, which is effectively one room on each of the two floors. He has thousands and thousands of books, completely covering three walls, and also two big computer screens. Fred (skinny) and Philip (fat) made up the feline naturist component, and there are three frogmouth birds living in one of his trees. We had another guest, a bright green treefrog and earlier in the day I'd seen an approx. eight inch caterpillar and a praying mantis-type-thing rocking back and forth, as if in a trance. We had a roast dinner au naturel (no puns) and for the first time ever, I slept on a couch in a shared room (there were only two rooms after all).

Innisfail

The only spiders I'd seen were the hanging-upside-down-spindly-legs variety, but as it was a double bed and they were on one side, I thought they where fine were they were. Unfortunately I dislodged them by kicking the blanket off in the night. As I wasn't expected in Cairns (or Caiiirns as they say) until tomorrow, decided to stay another day. Steve works two weeks on, two weeks off and this is an off period. Popped out for milk in a grocery first thing and a beautiful grey cat greeted me there. The owner called her Miss Sticky Beak because she sticks her nose into people's business during her social rounds. Steve was towing a vehicle to Cairns and offered me a ride. I didn't want to see the finish line a day early, or drive on the same boring road I was to cycle, but my path in life is usually that of least resistance, so I hitched a ride. Then we literally hitched back, as if my telepathy jiggered the engine - or rather the gear box - which went kaput. It was all a bit dreamlike parking outside someone's isolated house in the middle of nowhere, 10 kms out of town, with sugar train rails right outside. Then this beautiful woman came out and offered us water. Anyway, Steve became a bit fractious when we got back to town and I left him to it. He had to hire another vehicle to collect the trailer (that had also been hired) transport the original vehicle to Cairns and then bring the other one back home. He likes fixing up really old cars like his 1967 Dodge, which was so rusty, you could hardly see its original colour. He told me of the time he'd done up an old Mercedes, which was so beautiful, everyone stared and commented on it. Steve and his young son were in a circus balancing act at the time (nothing unusual about that) and drove in this Merc from here to Tasmania to perform at a circus. The thing burst into flames. They returned home, picked up more stuff and then flew south instead. The moral of the story : there is no moral. Steve is an artist too (of course) and showed me his collection of hand-painted guitars - or rather hand-burned. He wouldn't show me his tattoo though. Nearly 50, he'd decided to have his first one - covering his back. His brother is a tattoo artist, so I guess it's free, but so far has taken hundreds of hours, in six-hour shifts, with a stream of pain killers. Innisfail has its own climate apparently, which is so wet, that plants grow super fast and green slime forms immediately in the tiniest body of water. There are salt water crocs here as well and when it floods their stomping ground enlarges... Headed to another beach for a bit of R & R, where a metre-long goanna wandered by a few inches away. A cassowary came up to me as well, on the scrounge. As I was lying down at the time, it towered over me, so I stood up, in case it pecked my head. There was a cordoned off section for swimming, although other bathers deemed it unnecessary. Met a man with a metal detector, who told me he had uneartherd two identifiable wedding rings in his time. He was able to return them both to the holidaymakers who'd lost them; one was ecstatic, but the other didn't even thank him and said they'd already claimed it on insurance. Back in town a man stopped me in the middle of the road as I rode along. The very next day Mick was due to fly to Europe, which he was going to cycle across - and possibly the US as well. He was about 70, had never been cycle-touring and hadn't trained at all, but had already bought a $5,000 bike, so was clearly up for it. He said his papaw farm had been decimated by a cyclone a few years back, he had started it again from scratch, and then Yasi blew it all down again last year. So, he'd given up and decided to travel the world. He'd already hitchhiked around Australia and had met another cyclist who had ridden round it, then couldn't stop and had now completed four revolutions. I bought beers and fish 'n' chips tonight, took them back to Steve's, where I watched the chirping geckos scampering after moths on the ceiling and also saw a flying fox in a coconut tree, which looked like a bat in the light of my bicycle light. It stared at me, then flapped away on big, black wings. I'll remember that house, so serene, yet at the same time surrounded by animal sounds on every side.

Monday, 23 April 2012

Mission Beach to Innisfail

The man at the motel tried to charge me double for breakfast! His good lady wife had already totalled the bill and he added the constituents to the sum. Amazed to see Woolworth's staff buying fruit in front of me at the checkout, which they consumed during their break outside. Hang on... Then they had a cigarette. Someone told me any kind of work break is called a 'smoko' here, whether you have a fag or not. Also heard a woman on the phone complaining about the cold nights and how she would soon be putting on an extra 'doona' (duvet). Cold! I had slept with only a sheet partially covering my naked form AND air con AND the fan. Suddenly treated to lush, glistening tropical fauna on the road back to the highway. Then it was foliage as normal, with one or two big leaf plants here and there, as well as sugar cane and pastures for brahmin cattle, with big ears and loose flaps of skin wobbling under their necks and tummies. Apart from that it was the usual semis, utes and minibuses for company. There are literally thousands of minibuses and caravan-type vehicles bearing the same rental insignia (Jucy, Spaceships, Britz, Backpackers) as well as quite a few graffitied buses, which look pretty cool until you see a hundred more almost identical. It's like thinking you're a hippie, while wearing Gap. Some very sad ant news. I came across a single-portion-size, transparent ketchup container and about 100 ants had been trapped inside. They had been attracted by the sugar, salt and e numbers, through an ant-size opening and had then either been unable to escape, and/or stuck in red glue. There are often ants wandering across my laptop screen when I first turn it on. This species are 1-2 mm in length (I've seen the largest and smallest ants in this land) and they might be attracted to sugar lodged between the keys, which has no doubt drizzled from bedtime sweets. Had already made it to tonight's destination by lunchtime and looked around town. Innisfail is a slightly down at heel place, predominantly serving the sugar cane and banana industries. Many of its buildings hail from the art deco period because a cyclone in 1912 flattened most of the earlier structures. The town floods once a year on average and a mountain nearby boasts Australia's highest annual rainfall of 4.5 metres! In the afternoon I took myself off to the nearby seaside at Flying Fish Point, then forged my way along a dirt track, wending through thick tropicality, to Ella Bay, a sweeping crescent of sand all to myself. A brief swimming session - as I was a bit scared of being stung/bitten/eaten/drowned and then back to meet up with tonight's Couchsurfer, who had (a) remembered I was coming and (b) available to host. It's ironic that my younger brother, Neil, had emailed me today about how my travel blog reminded him of The Heart of Darkness; in that I was begining to sound despondent about it all. Well, Steve, reminded me of Colonel Kurtz... No, not really, but there was something savage about him, in the nicest possible way. He had certainly had a few adventures in his time, first in the navy and then as a traveller. He spoke langurously, moved like a cat and yet, like a cat, he might just pounce. In a very Conradesque way, he said he had swum in the deepest oceans and walked down the darkest paths, and had dealt with the associated craziness of these places. In his naval days he'd been to islands in the South Pacific that hadn't been visited for 10 or 20 years where they put on spectacular dancing shows. He'd also been to Easter Island, where he'd swum in bright red volcanic crater pool. Now he works as an engineer fixing sterilizing machinery in hospitals, dentist's, tattoo parlours, etc, the length and breadth of Queensland, the Northern Territory and Papua New Guinea. His ramshackle house overflows with artefacts from Polynesian islands and collections of wooden crocodiles, basketballs and digeridoos. There was a huge turtle shell, a ship's bell, a painting of Christ on a leaf, a five foot high VW sign, a baby doll in a nun's habit, a painting of the Twin Towers disaster from New Guinea and locks set at different times, or with no hands. For dinner, and in his words, Steve prepared, "Something good and something bad." The former being 'cultured vegetables' (carrot, cabbage, ginger, garlic AND bacteria). He'd kept one such plant in the fridge for six months and said the flavour matured in time. I bet it did. Thankfully, at a week old, the bacteria had just been hatched in this one. The bad thing was pizza. Steve has gone to bed now and I'm typing this in his living room. I say 'room', but with all the openings (windows, doors) and noises (crickets, squeaks, creaks, rustles, etc) it feels like a treehouse. I'm delaying going to my room because my room is outside. It's a caravan. I can't see much inside there, not by candlelight. Steve supplied me with an insence thing to keep the mosquitos away and said I should give the bedding a good shake before settling down, because it hadn't been slept in for a long time and might contain spiders...

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Ingham to Mission Beach

The motelier told me of another man cycling to Cairns who had stayed there a couple of days earlier. Maybe I could catch him up? I thought. Apparently he rested his legs on a bag of ice for two or three hours every evening. A serious cyclist. I won't catch him up. Northern Queensland is like one big building site. Roads are being built and resurfaced, buildings are going up and pipelines are being laid. The construction workers all wear bright orange and yellow; and so do other outdoor personnel, from truck drivers to postmen. In the future we will all have to wear high vis outfits all the time - even at home - in case we bump into each other. A rare uphill stretch this morning, over a mountain pass and although my legs were up to it, my sweat glands were not. Hills = OK, heat = OK, hills + heat = hell. Cold pizza was enjoyed under palm fronds on the beach at Cardwell, with the spiky Hinchingbrook Island as a backdrop. I'm not sure why I even considered staying in Cardwell; it's only 33 miles from Ingham and no host could be found there. So I continued to Mission Beach, where Couchsurfers resided - and ones with good references - as Wayne and Margot in Rockhampton had spent time with them. As I was a day early, I sent a message in the hope I could stay there tonight. The lady who answered told me I had been expected two weeks earlier and they had a full house this weekend. You have to watch the dates on the drop-down menus on the Couchsurfing request system; they play tricks on you. Just the other day I noticed a future booking ran from April 25th of this year to April 26th of next year. So, another lonely night spent in lodgings, using money I don't have. The lady at the Mackay Motel charged $110. Me : "I'm looking for something cheaper than that." Her : "How much would you like to pay?" Me : "As little as possible." Her : "Would $80 be OK?" I didn't have the balls to go lower than that. I should have contacted motels in advance, telling them that it was a sponsored ride, like the guys I met near Townsville. Babies with Aids or something. I could have told them about my blog as well and how it had thousands of subscribers, then I could have written a second, much shorter blog with glowing references of the accommodation I'd blagged : "It was fantastic! The couple were fantastic! The bare walls were fantastic!" The room did indeed have bare, brick walls; however, there were actually two whole pictures hanging on them. A Chinese Honey Chicken takeaway was on the menu tonight and then I drank a beer at an open-air bar. Company was what I really thirsted after, but there was no one who I wanted to talk to, or had the guts to approach. People are in their little conflabs and I'm not going to barge in on them. Back to the room for channel hopping, which takes an eternity because there are so many channels and half of them are showing ads at any one time.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Townsville to Ingham

It just shows you how I'm fit for cycling, but not much else, when my legs felt stiffer than usual this morning, after a few miles of walking the day before. Nothing much happened today. The scenery was dull and the road was straight, flat and went on and on. On days like this I keep my head down, listen to the radio and don't pay much attention to the endless gum trees and grass whizzing by; only they didn't whiz by because there was no wind from the south, or any other direction. When the sky is blue, the sun is hot and the landscape is dreary, I wish I was back in Scotland, where every day feels brand new. Sick of that cooked tomatoey stench, which is ever-present, except when passing sugar cane fields, that look and smell like grass. Trying to breathe through my mouth, but then my throat dries up and I want to drink more. The best time of the day is when the sun is low in the sky, as the light softens and the air cools. The Couchsurfer in Ingham had told me he lived on the main drag, yet didn't actually give me his address or phone number, so a few days ago, I asked him to provide them. No information was forthcoming, so I stayed in a motel. Again, painted breeze blocks and no decor; however, these rooms are usually spacious, with good facilities, including a fridge and microwave. Two people said I was mad today - a bloke is a servo and the motel manager, who said he was too fat to cycle anywhere. You said it mate. Pizza again and nipped into the bottle shop for a cold one while waiting for it to be cooked. Even red wine is refrigerated here. Back at the motel I repatriated a pea green grasshopper to the great outdoors and settled down for a Saturday night of televisual drivel.

Friday, 20 April 2012

Townsville

After nearly 600 miles over eight days, I was gagging for a rest day. So what did Angela (she had a day off work) and I do first thing? Walk up Castle Hill, a rocky outcrop next to her house. It was worth of it for the all-round spectacular views (Magnetic Island, coastline, CBD, port, marina, mountains) but the road going right to the summit spoilt the tranquility somewhat. It was harder walking down the hill and then I needed a second shower when we got back to the house. Her house is ultra modern and minimalistic, with huge, bare floors, walls and most of their possessions are in cupboards. Both Angela and Dave are into technology; everything is electric (the toaster lowers bread by itself and the convection hob is like an iPad with buttons built into a screen). The afternoon was a more sedate affair, strolling along the shady Strand, swmming in the Rockpool (a sea water pool) and trying gorgeous gelato from a huge selection, such as salty peanut and cappuccino. Angela told me more about her training to be a psychiatrist, which includes flying to remote island Aboriginal communities in the Gulf of Carepentaria. I should have copied the locals, who swam with hats and T shirts, as I got sunburnt. There are signs prohibiting swimming in the sea due to it being 'stinger' (stinging jellyfish) season and there are netted sections keeping them out, where people do swim. Apparently a crocodile climbed over a net recently. Someone told me to always swim in the middle of a group, as then you're less likely to be eaten, bitten or stung. On the way back Angela pointed out utes (utility vehicles) often driven by 'boy racers'. The old, battered ones, that are actually being used to carry stuff by tradies (tradesmen) are OK, but the new, shiny ones have souped-up engines which sound like motorbikes. In the evening we dined at a very swanky restaurant called Salt, where main courses alone cost $30+. The dishes looked as good as they tasted and the service was excellent, although the portions were a bit meagre. The town looked better in the dark with colourful lights, signs and attractive, well groomed young things. Surprised to see how dressed up the women were, with heels nearly as high, and flesh nearly as expansive as their Glaswegian counterparts on a Friday night (although somewhat more subdued and sober). Townsville, the largest settlement in Northern Queensland, is industrial, not particularly touristy, but still moneyed and classy, in a brash, American fashion.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Ayr to Townsville

Michael gave me breakfast, which I didn't pay for, although it might not have been free. I figured that was only fair after being subjected to his racist views last night. Bumped into three young guys on the highway, cycle-touring in the other direction (against the wind) the poor buggers. Me : "Where did you start from?" Guy : "London." Me : "No, I mean, where did you start cycling from?" Guy " "London." They had ridden across Europe via the Rhine and Danube, beside the Black Sea, via Iran, Nepal, China, Thailand, Laos, Bali, then Darwin to Melbourne, to raise money for an anti-child trafficking charity. Camping mostly, they carried masses of gear (a woman drove a support vehicle now they were in their home country of Australia). Inexperienced cyclists beforehand, they did no training with fully laden bikes, had almost fallen off when starting out had nearly given up after the first day's mileage of 125 kms. One of them had been through a showerless stretch of eight days! They had just come from Townsville, where they had emailed the Holiday Inn before hand to tell them about their charity. Not only had they been put up for free, but each was given T shirts and visors. In Townsville I had to ride up possibly the steepest hill so far (20%) to reach the home of my cousin, Angela, and her boyfriend, Dave. Both doctors in the local hospital, they have been living in the city for the last couple of years. What a house! Huge, modern, open plan and with amazing views over the CBD, port and ocean. We had a tasty dinner of chili and tortilas, followed by pecan pie. We discussed the differences between the UK and Oz, especially the health systems, which they believe to be better here. They love the climate too of course and think generally life is much better here, and although they don't think wages are better (in relation to the high cost of goods and services) you wouldn't think so by looking at their house. They live in the Castle Hill area, one of the posher districts - because of the views - and some of the other houses are twice the size and worth a couple of million. Not being used to air conditioning, I was surprised at how quickly my room cooled down when I adjusted the remote control from 25 to 18 degrees. They don't have screen windows and doors, perhaps because the rich people think they look a bit cheap.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Bowen to Ayr

Turquoise mountains melted into a twinkling, turquoise sea as I returned to the town centre. While Cleaning my chain and cogs, waiting for the library to open, two passers by asked if I was OK, and last night a man had stopped on the highway and shouted, "Do you need a lift?" Inside the building an Aboriginal woman was on the phone to someone about benefits, while her cute children were left to their own devices. It was "fucking this" and "fucking that" in earshot of the staff, who did nothing. An indigenous man, who, like her, displayed slow reactions and slurred speech, gave her $90 and said he was off to buy a cheap fishing rod. She completely ignored him throughout. Sometimes you can see how people form a negative opinion of a particular race. Upon leaving town, I noticed the 'Bowenwood' sign on an industrial cylinder - as this is where the film 'Australia', with Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman, was made.

The air smelt of peppery, fried tomatoes; but I was bored with the brilliant sky and bush today, and kept my head down. The roads are good here; flat, smooth and quiet; and all I have to do is hug the ever-present white line dividing shoulder and highway. The routine of it all is becoming repetitive now, which is only natural, as I'm nearing the end. Typically, I set out at 9, blog in the library, coffee and chocolate at 11, start at 11.30, lunch at 1.30, stop again for snacks every 15 miles from thereon. It would of course be much more sensible to embark at 6, ride until 9, blog, relax and swim while the sun is high, continue cycling at 4 or 5. The heat is such that I'm generally enveloped in a sheen of sweat between 9 and 4, when the humidity perceptibly drops. It's considerbly cooler at 5, and from then to 6 is the best time of day, with the slanting rays and strong contrast in light and dark. The sun goes down at 6 and the flying insects go mental until it's pitch black by 6.30. Discovered yet another ant species : brown 'robots' with black abdomen, who marched in staccato rhythm. As for my movements, I've developed a limp, but cycling is no problem. Across the wide Burdekin River, I noticed spiders had made their homes way up between the girders. Had they 'flown' there on the wind as babies? Had many others perished in the water? It was on this narrow strip of asphalt that I took Peter in Mackay's advice of cheerily waving when a car honked at me for the audacity of delaying them by one second of their precious time.

In Ayr, one motel charged $130; whereas The Shamrock opposite only charged $70, so of course I stayed there. Michael, an Israeli of German and Polish descent, took my money, told me Britin had "fucked up" the Middle East and proceeded to give me a history lesson for the next three hours. I wish Laura had been there to correct any mistakes he mde. It was my own stupid fault, for when he said I should cycle the length of Israel, I said, "I'd like to. I've been told Jordan is nice too." Big mistake. He did permit me go to McDonald's halfway through - where I had the largest burger, largest portion of fries, masses of salt and ketchup, and an ice cream - and enjoyed every mouthful. So, Michael then. He was lecturing, ranting, extremist, pro-Jew, anti-Arab, opinionated, boastful, didn't let me get a word in edgeways and probably didn't let the truth get in the way of a good story. However, with his emphatic gesticulations and staring, bloodshot eyes, he certainly held my attention. Here are a few of his 'true stories' :

1. He had saved the daughter of Saddam Hussen's personal doctor from having her throat cut. The doctor had fled the Iraqui dictator when some of his family members were slaughtered. No other Arab countries would let him in, so he came to Australia. His daughter wanted to practice medicine in her adopte country, but because this meant she would save Christians as well as Moslems when she qualified, extremists said they would cut her throat. Her father, with few friends in this new land, knew and respected Michael (even as a Jew) and phoned him for help. Michael met with the extremists and saved the day.

2. He respected the Asian prostitutes who used rooms in his motel to ply their trade, because they were honourable people. He couldn't stop them anyway, as anyone who violates another's employment rights is liable to a two year custodial sentence.

3. His father had been a soldier in the Third Reich and fought on the Russian Front. However, he was also Jewish (but didn't look it) and became a Soviet spy when escaping to Siberia. He returned to the siege of Stalingrad, where he joined the Nazis once more. Escaping from them and crossing the Volga with the temperature in the -40s, he and another spy risked being shelled when on Russian territory. To maximise their chances of survival, Michael's father told his comrade to head for cover on the left and he would go to the right. The other man was killed by an exploding mortar. Michael's father got away.

4. Michael himself served in the Israeli Air Force and shot down aircraft in the Yom Kippur War.

5. He talked of Jesus' teaching of loving they neighbour. Me : "What about the Arabs?" He : "No".

6. A Catholic priest had stayed in the motel (called The Shamrock after all) a few years back. When the Irishman noticed Michael's collection of Hebrew texts on a bookshelf, they proceeded to argue about religious matters for two hours. Michael said the man was rude, arrogant, looked down on him as a Jew and left in a rage. One year later the priest was on holiday in Australia again and came in to apologise to Michael, as he had since read Hebrew religious material and seen the error of his ways. It turned out he was the head of the Catholic Church in Ireland.

Don't you hate it when someone brags about changing another person's viewpoint, who even says sorry for their behaviour? In my experience such an admissable U turn goes against the grain of human behaviour.

He did teach me the 'past present continuous' though. For example, "When he was walking along the beach, he saw her".

The weather report in the Townsville Bulletin :

Today 30/21 degrees, a shower or two
Tomorrow 30/21 degrees, a shower or two
Friday 30/21 degrees, a shower or two
Saturday 30/21 degrees, a shower or two
Sunday 30/21 degrees, a shower or two

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Palm Grove to Bowen




Got up as the girls left, in their green and yellow shirts and sunhats, walking 2 kms to the school bus stop at the end of the track. Watched Paul milking their one cow with a calf, who was coerced with a bucket of molasses. Had a go at it myself and don't plan on repeating the experience any time soon. Before departing, the dogs chased after a pack of dingoes, which could be heard howling in the distance. Paul said their dogs were stupid and could be lured out individually, whereupon the dingoes would mate if applicable and tear the others apart. About to transfer photos onto the laptop in Proserpine library, when I realised there was no camera about my person. I had to ride 13 miles back to Palm Grove against the wind, where the dogs (they were behind a dingo-proof partition) pretended they didn't recognise me for the sheer sport of it. Luckily there were no other houses within earshot. Theresa and Paul had gone to work at a community garden, but thankfully my camera was on the ground.

Before arriving in Bowen, I'd already seen Couchsurfer Mike's photo many times on roadside placards. He is the incumbent mayor of the Whitsunday region, a post he has held since '97, and there's an election coming up. There didn't appear to be a front door at the property and I had to shout to Mike and Kylie, who I could see through screen windows upstairs and Mike told me to let myself in through the roller door of the garage. I couldn't have arrived on a better day because yesterday had been Mike's birthday and tonight they celebrated with a fabulous steak in Diane sauce, asparagus, courgettes, sweet potatoes and carrots, followed by chocolate swirl cake. Mike explained his mayoral duties, a position which he is paid for, and includes management of Council staff, road building, health and education. A plain-talking individual, he told me about the time a local had phoned him at home to complain about a barking dog at 4 am. He phoned the man back at the same time the following night to tell him the issue was resolved. He didn't have a lot of time for the residents of the Whitsundays, who wanted to protect "every damn thing" in the face of industrial concerns (shipping, mining, etc) and neither was he keen on the likely prospect of a "happy clappy" woman becoming mayor in neighbouring Mackay. A former underground miner himself, he now lived in a luxurious house (by British standards) overlooking the bay, that was in stark contrast to the eco home of last night's hosts. Kylie turned in before 9 because she had a 4.30 start as manageress of a supermarket deli, leaving Mike and I to watch The Voice, a talent show in which the judges listen to the contestant's singing with their backs to them and press a button if they want to work with them as mentors.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Mackay to Palm Grove

Pancakes were cooked in one pan and doused in maple syrup, while in another a Brooke's leather saddle was being soaked in oil to soften it up. It had rained heavily overnight and continued in a lighter capacity through out the morning, as Peter accompanied me for the first 50 kms, initially on quiet roads snaking through sugar cane plantations and then on the Highway.

At lunchtime I met George. Having been seeking a shady spot for some time; as now the hot, humid sun had burned through the cloud and was burning through me; when I came across a picnic table under a tree beside the road. While eating, I watched yet another species of ant scurrying across the table. These ones were tiny, black and bent their abdomens over their thoraxes like scorpions. I noticed this old man pulling up weeds nearby and he came over to say hello. George was in his 70s, large, with huge hands, and fresh blood spilled from fresh cuts on his tanned legs and arms. With his kaki sleeveless shirt (that had 'Me' embroidered on the pocket) shorts and hat, as well as his coarse beard, he bore a resemblence to Ernest Hemmingway. Like the author, he was a man's man, gruff, coarse and called a spade a spade. We smoked cigarettes together (even though he had only recently recovered from cancer) and I learned a good deal about him. He came from Catherine in the Northern Territory and the small cluster of houses here (he was minding his brother's house) made him feel claustrophobic. He had left school and started chopping wood for a living at the age of 10 years and two months, then went on to scything sugar cane - and presumably one of these occupations had cost him the two missing fingers. He had been to Europe once when he visited Denmark for Christmas. When he arrived there was snow on the ground, he curtailed his trip and he flew home as soon as he could. Very respectful of the British royal family (as many older Australians are) he said there were three icons : the Queen, Nelson Mandela and Fidel Castro. He wasn't so keen on Prince Charles, who he said had forfeited accession to the throne when he married a divorced woman. During our conversation he watched trucks go by wearing an expression of boyish fascination.

Came off the highway at Proserpine and followed the signs to Airlie Beach - which along with the Whitsunday Islands close by, were more supposedly beautiful places my tight schedule prevented exploring - and turned off again to the tiny, inland community of Palm Grove. Whilst studying the map in the increasing gloom, a car stopped on a side track between cane fields and the minimally dressed, towel-headed, female driver asked if I was OK. Only in Australia. The last few miles were dirt track, against the wind and in complete darkness. Reaching the property, nearly ran into a cow, and then the dogs came out. Three big dogs - one as big as me - barked and snarled, until a 12-year-old girl called them off. "Yes?" She enquired, none too friendly. Her parents weren't in and she didn't know anything about me. Fortunately I was able to persuade Izzy to let me in and once inside the dogs were pussies. Soon Couchsurfers Theresa and Paul, and their older daughter, Emma, returned, and we sat down to minestrone with pasta, which Izzy had cooked (they had a rota). The parents were seriously into environmental issues, worked in this field and are self-sufficient in many ways. They sell sprouts (like mustard and cress), micro herbs and cheese at markets, as well as supplying restaurants. After the girls had gone to bed we told travel tales, of which they had many more than me, having been all over South and Central America, Asia and Africa. They put me off travelling in most of these places.

The chafing at the top of my thighs had been chronic today and Theresa gave me Papaw oil (with a petroleum jelly base) which I applied liberally before turning in.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Sarina to Mackay

Stayed in the motel room until 6.30 - to get my money's worth and also because it was only 20 or so miles to Mackay - while a cleaner shuffled back and forth outside, coughing her guts up. Read an article in the Big Rigs newspaper about my second favourite ranting topic : "Talk your issues out with a friend or professional - food won't give you any answers". Sarina is a dump that swims with blubber and reeks of shit (from an abatoir perhaps?) and just about everybody I had dealings with was unfriendly and unsmiling. In Subway, I enlisted the assistance of two young girls with wi fi (as the staff were hopeless) but still no joy. When they're grandmother came in (she wore dark glasses indoors like a lot of Austarlians - so as to avoid eye contact?) she asked the girls what I was doing, rather than ask me. Return to sultriness and sugar cane on the highway, where I passed an old cyclist battling with the wind, reminding me once again how my half hour research into weather conditions had paid off big time.

Mackay was bigger than its predecessor, but not much nicer, or at least from what I saw on the approach. Like most Australian cities, the main road was sandwiched by plasticky shops and service outlets, and there was no distinct feel or architecture going on.The Council tried their best with the odd attraction, parks and tropical floral displays, but it could be so much more inviting if the Gods of commerce and cars hadn't been allowed to run riot. At Macca's, where I finally found a wireless connection, a heavily-tattooed female sat opposite her grandmother and didn't take her sunglasses off for the duration. There was also a teenage Asian dipping fries in her ice cream!

Had time to kill, so had a look at the marina. On the way back, when taking a pee off the road, I noticed yellow ants with green heads and abdomens on a sapling. They had fused leaves together with something like spider web to make a nest and I watched them going about their business for an hour until the light failed. Two observations about this particular species : (a) One ant walked about the bundle of leaves with what seemed to be a piece of food, which other ants took turns in snacking from; (b) Many of them were motionless for long periods. Nearby a beautiful ant-size gold spider with silver stripes and emerald legs, crawled into a cavity in a semi-fused leaf and repeatedly twitched its behind. Was it about to give birth? Had the spider fused the leaves together? Was there a symbiotic relationship between spider and ants? I must do some research.

Stayed with Warmshowerer Peter and his wife Jackie, grown-up boys and dog, Cactus. They made me an extremely welcome cold, chocolate milkshake with cream on top. Then we all sat down to a roast dinner. Later on I must have consumed at least a bottle of wine, although as it was poured from a box it's difficult to tell. Peter had been put in jail for bicycle terrorism! He had campaigned for bikes to be allowed on trains and had also worked professionally as a cycling promoter for the council. Now he is into endurance rides; for example the 1800 km Paris to Brest (and back again) race, in which cyclists keep going until they fall asleep - sometimes while cycling and snatch a few winks at the side of the road. Locals line the route cheering, waving and give out homemade crepes, etc. I also learned tonight of a cyclone which passed through Townsville recently. One of the sons was there at the time and the house he was in was untouched, but a few streets away roofs were blown off.

Marlborough to Sarina

The infamous family two rooms down were pretty noisy and I was woken at 6 am. They were like the Joad family in the Grapes of Wrath, travelling a great distance in a beat up jalopy, with their worldly possessions precariously tied to the roof. Mr Joad said he was waiting on a mechanic and he was contemplating breaking a window as the keys were locked inside. He also told me of his pre-fatherhood cycling days - in velodromes and he'd completed the same journey as me. The speed and slang of his speech had an hillbilly quality to it and I couldn't get a word in edgeways. His mute wife, bore a Depression era, Time Magazine quality, looked haggard and drawn, framed in the doorway of their room, sitting on the bed. With so much open space to run about, their three tousled-blond tykes were having the time of their lives, chasing each other, knocking on everyone's doors and asking me loads of questions (which the younger two would repeat). Young boys look up to older boys and men with bikes as if they're superheros. It doesn't matter how a rider looks or how old they are; they worship anyone with a big bicycle who has the freedom to go further than them. I don't think the motel's 'Gem Restaurant' was an intentional play on words and was an honest nod to the area's abundance of precious stones (a big photo of an open cast mine took pride of place behind the counter). It took 20 minutes to rustle up a cooked breakfast, because the kitchen was about to close at 8 am. It had been open since 4.30, as this was when many of its customers (miners) started their day.

Took advantage of another 'driver reviver' stop, where, travelling with a family, a beautiful grey cat on a lead was mad keen on making a dash for freedom, much to the local bird population's anguish. Numerous signs along the highway asking trivial knowledge questions and mimicking kids on long-distance journeys : "Are we nearly there Dad?", etc. This is all about the Roads Department trying to keep drivers awake by entertaining them. The signs that told you to take a break if you felt sleepy might be counter productive by association though, or at least they seemed to have a soporific effect on me. There may well be a high incidence of crashes because people drive too far without stopping, as there are no towns for a long way, but the surroundings stimulated me at least. Again the views were good and, anyway, barren places are good places for thinking about stuff. Also, instead of spending money on signs and generally bending over backwards to be nice to motorists, how about attempting to tax them out of existence even further instead? The billions in revenue could be used to strengthen bus, train, tram, pedestrian and cycle transport instead - which in turn might shoehorn a few of the few remaining fatties out of their sardine tins. And how about this? Implanting motorists with pedometers so that they have to walk a certain distance for every litre of petrol they purchase.

I'm sure the monk would have agreed with me. Yes, I encountered a barefoot, Buddhist monk called Jason! His only travelling companions were a brown robe, a shoulder bag and a bottle of water. I couldn't help myself and had to pull over for a chat.

"Where are you going?"
"Townsville. And you?"
"Cairns. Where have you come from?"
"Coolangatta. You?"
"Melbourne."
"You beat me every time."
"Why are you doing it?"
"I'm homeless; I'm a traditional Buddhist."
"Don't your feet hurt?"
"Yes, but we have to overcome hardship in this life."
"Can I take your photo?"
"Are you going to put it on Facebook?"
"I don't have Facebook."
"Then you show some wisdom."


Somewhat crassly, I told him of my own monkly status when he asked why I was journeying by bike. I am on a sort of anti-car crusade and, ever so slightly, I also renounce worldly values - as long as I don't have to give up chocolate, sweets, alcohol, caffeine, sex, TV, internet... I would have prefered to have happened upon him on the Gold Coast, surrounded by those shrines to mammon.
The Bruce Highway joined the coast at Clearview. Admittedly it was drizzly and the tide was out, but I couldn't work out why hundreds of people chose to live/holiday here. The houses were lined up close together, there were no amenities and the beach shelved so gently that you couldn't see the ocean and swimming would require a mile walk. There had also been a plethora of signs for the 30 kms leading to an ice cream shop. When travelling two hundred miles by bicycle between McDonalds', how could my taste buds resist such a build up? I was given a taste of the blue one and it wasn't up to much; but why oh why did I then opt for two scoops (strawberry/lychee & ginger) without sampling them? The teenage girl who served me was ripe for exploitation and would have let me try the lot! The $6 ice cream was watery and flavourless. It's just another hardship to overcome I guess. The even younger girls in the jewellery shop next door, as sparkly and captivating as the crystals on show, were a joy to engage with. "How was your Easter?" was their opening gambit, but that was out of sheer friendliness rather than a sales pitch. They answered all my questions about opals, even though they knew I wasn't going to buy any.

As dusk approached, the scent of cloves wafted on the drizzly breeze and, as is the case when the sun goes down, insects took to the air. At this time I ride with head down, mouth shut and continue to wear sunglasses for as long as it's safe to do so. They still bombard me, buzz in my earholes and wriggle in my sweat, but reduce when it's properly dark. I could do with a pair of goggles or even a motorbike helmet for this period. Being a monk, I try not to kill any on purpose. At least I don't murder anything larger, like kangaroos, of which I saw many corpses today. One freshly deceased adult lay at the edge of the road with its forearms still cutely perpendicular from the body and taloned fingers hanging down, as they are in life. Droves of flies buzzed about the open, festering wound where the head used to be. Now you may find my description gratuitously sick, but I say it is not as sick as the vehicle that murdered it, which was probably, like all the others, travelling at 60, 70, 80 mph. If I had my way no one would be allowed to drive at such speeds. With today's technology it would be possible to electronically impede traffic so that, for example, 20 mph would be the upper limit in urban areas and 40 elsewhere. It is my belief that across the globe, hundreds of thousands of human lives, as well as animals, would be saved every year. But who gives a damn? As Jeremy Clarkson might say.

I should have kept to my original plan of stopping in Carmila. I'd done 80 miles, yet I felt fresh as a daisy and it was only 4.30. There was no wi fi to be had at the pub or motel either, so I continued north (bypassing Ilbilbie, which housed a motel not worth the $120 tarrif a man who cleaned it told me) to Sarina, a real town, albeit a horrible one. Still no internet at any of its accommodation (one place charged $140!) but it was 7.45, raining and I'd ridden 121 miles. The cheapest room (that wasn't above a pub) cost $95 for grey-painted bricks and no decor. I could have stayed in Carmila for $30, or I could have had dinner here and then cycled the remaining 20 miles to Mackay, where I'm sure the host there wouldn't have minded my arriving a day early. I found a couple of good films on TV - A Day in the Life of Joe Egg and a Marty Feldman one from the 70s.
Today being the longest ride, here's a list of what I ate :

Approx. 6 rashers bacon
2 eggs
2 slices toast
4 large tomatoes
2 large bananas
Approx. 150g chocolate
Approx. 150g sweets
4 biscuits
Large chicken, salad, mayo roll
1 medium size pizza (cheese, tomato, chicken, anchovy. onion, capsicum - pepper)

And I'm still losing weight!

Emu Park to Marlborough

Dave disappeared into his office at 9 as he had a telephone conference to sit in on, so Merita looked after me and told me about driving trucks at Blackwater coalmine. The physical work, 12 hour shifts and five days on/five days off routine are not much fun for her and she'd rather be using the Spanish and Russian she learned at university, but of course there's more money in mining. She doesn't like the crude banter and sexism, or the damage that is being done to her body - and is soon to see a skin specialist. Talking of sexism, there are bikini-clad 'meter maids' on the Gold Coast, who put money in tourists' parking meters. I think it's scandalous. It's discrimantion against cyclists!

A refreshing cool breeze on my behind had me whizzing up the road in no time. I had been fore-warned about this section of the Bruce Highway - from Rocky to Mackay - because it was so straight, flat and non-descript. It didn't seem too bad to me, with sparse trees allowing views to bottle green and turqoise fuzzy felt mountains beyond the plane - and how the volume of traffic has been gradually dwindling since Brisbane. There must be a lot of accidents though, at least if the 'driver reviver' scheme is anything to go by. It's a cafe set up by the Main Roads Department and manned by volunteers, proffering free tea, coffee and biscuits to long haul motorists. The two old timers working today said that the man who runs the petrol station and cafe opposite didn't seem to mind about the loss of business, and was always closing up to go fishing anyway. The lady behind me in the queue asked for two thermosflasks to be filled up and the sweet old men were happy to oblige.

Unfortuntely, even though I arrived in the tiny town of Marlborough at 4.30 and would have liked to ride on, I had to stay in the motel here as the next accommodation was 160 kms up the road. I suppose due to the lck of competition, the lady at reception could be completely honest about the problems with the establishment. She gaily informed me that the TV in my room didn't work very well, neither did the wi fi and that there were young children close by who would probably be noisy. The room was tiny, basic and didn't have a screen on door or window to banish the beasties, but did contain tea, coffee, biscuits, and milk in the fridge! A lady in the next room struck up a conversation and, like me, had ended up here as a result of the sparsity of motels (although of course in her case she was driving a long distance and needed to break the journey). She was a home-based governess, and, until recently, had been working as an au pair in Kent. She declined my invitation to drink at the pub, complaining of a headache, and I gingerly made me way alone. It was indeed pretty dire; threadbare, brightly lit and peopled by raucous miners (presumably). Graffiti covered the walls of one bar and two pit bulls prowled about. The one saving grace was the barmaid from Chester, who made such a chirpy adornment to her grim surroundings. It took bloody ages for the fish and chips to be cooked; I wolfed it down, necked the Carlton Mid and made a hasty getaway. Back in the 10'x10' cell at 8.30, and yes indeed, neither electrical contrivance would come to life. Couldn't contemplate turning in before the three young Germans (in one of Australia's millions of minibuses) finished playing a board game nearby. With the side door open, this involved much hilarity and dice shaking. I didn't understand why they all chose to sleep cooped up in their transport, rather than pitch a tent.

Rockhampton to Emu Park

I was very reluctant to leave the breakfast table, let alone straddle my bicycle once again, such was my pleasure in basking in the warmth emanating from my hosts, as we talked so freely and easily about evrything from road rules to recycling. But leave it I did and continued on this crazy, relentless mission of mine. On the map of the country in the guest's room it looked even further from Rocky to Townsville, than the previous stretch to Brisbane. My bottom was suitably fortified by this rest stop, yet it would soon throb once more.

Bidding farewell to Rocky, Adrian headed east to the coast, feeling reinvigorated and mellowed, even with a stiff head wind to contend with. Now north of the Tropic of Capricorn and surf beaches (because of the reef). From the huge coal port and beef capital of Australia to the tiny resort of Emu Park, where I sat, overlooking a choppy, coffee-coloured bay, propped up against a monkey puzzle tree and a chicken roll the size of my head. The idyllic scene was somewhat spoiled by the smell of dog poo - and then I discovered I'd sat in it. Luckily I removed the soiled shorts, as I wear a padded cycling pair underneath (together with a fleece permanently tied at the waist to cushion my derriere). There's a Ladies' Beach here; and the Singing Ship, a musical sculpture commemorating the bicentennial of Captain Cook landing nearby. I had to wait to photograph this white edifice, before a mooning couple finished their canoodling in front of it (I think he'd just proposed to her as she seemed to be regarding at a ring on the appropriate finger).

Spent a very enjoyable evening in the company of another Dave, a Couchsurfer iving in a beautiful, Swiss chalet style barn, which he had built himself from a single 'black wood' tree. Parts of it (eg supporting pillars) were whole, thick branches and other parts (eg the kitchen work surfaces) were smoothly varnished - with the bark left on at the edges. Dave is a hunky, charismatic guy, who goes abroad for several months of the year due to the success and seasonality of his air conditioning business. He likes Asia best because of the culture, food, cheapness - and because its warmth means he can pack light - he only takes a tiny rucksac containing one change of clothes, a second pair of footwear, toiletries bag and guide book. I also met his flatmates : Marita, a coalmine 'truckette', Steve, a bus driver soon to return to his home town of Brisbane, and Richard, who works as a chef, but has aspirations to study physics (and told me of his theories on using mercury to create gravity). Apart from Dave, they were all very pale - especially Richard, who was almost the colour of his work tunic.

In his super duper, softly lit kitchen, where he looked very inch the TV chef himself, Dave knocked up grilled chicken coated in cornflakes, and then we played pool and snooker. I slept outside on the deck in a proper bed with a mosquito net. It was a tad windy, yet I liked the feeling of it and slept pretty well.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Rockhampton

Out of all the town's attractions, when Wayne and Margot had mentioned the 'Dreamtime Centre' yesterday, I had wanted to go there and there alone. The place was half-outside with mock sandstone structures, which were a lot better than they sound. Another Wayne (but this one was aboriginal) showed the dozen or so in my group around and was a fantastic tour guide. We learned about the history of his people, their sand paintings (some of which are 19,000 years old), hunting, as well as giving us a digerdoo recital and letting us have (mostly) hopeless attempts at throwing boomerangs. Another man, from the Torres Straits, between Cape York and New Guinea, gave us a talk on his people and generally sparked an interest in me - especially after all the problems of modern-day native peoples I've heard about it.

Fixed the punctures, had the chain replaced again after another thousand miles in the bag and picked up a few essentials. In Maccas I did indeed have a problem with a modern-day aboriginal. There were these rowdy teenagers (black, white and mixed) in front of me, who a separate lady complained to, saying they were giving her children a bad example. One of them told her to "Fuck off", and taking her children with her, she did exactly that. I was right behind the one who swore when the young girl took his order. Because he dropped his Ps and Qs, I picked them up for him, adopting a loud, sarcastic tone. He told me where to go, that I was same sex orientated and that i should suck something I have no intention of sucking in my life. I got a bit cross, tried to reason with him, then attempted a reconcilliatory handshake. He said, "You're not my Dad" and left. I felt dreadful because I'd handled the situation terribly and abhor confrontations - even though all the staff (who of course had remained silent through out) were on my side. I think the annoyance with my own behaviour was partly because I may not have said anything if it had been a white boy.

Back at Couchsurfing HQ, another leisurely meal (a stir fry) was enjoyed by all and we continued to compare travel notes. Later, over a couple of drams of Scotch, I journeyed with Wayne and Margot along the red-penned routes on their huge library of road atlases they had undertaken, and listened to their reminiscences conjoured up by the meticulously labeled photo albums. Margot knew where everything was - when asked about a trip in 1974 or whenever, she would stare into the distance and pluck a file from her grey matter, as well as on paper. They also liked to take their caravan into the bush and 'rough camp' from time to time. Soon they will take to the roads with it once again.

Gladstone to Rockhampton

Luckily I didn't have to rise as early as Lynda, who chooses to work from 7 to 3.30, when she could work later! I lingered over my regular dose of Vegemite on toast and then headed for the library. En route I thought I'd ridden over a thin rope, but then realised it was moving. On closer inspection it was a cohort of thick, furry caterpillars, nose to tail, coursing out from thick undergrowth, down the kerb and straight across a busy road, where, of course they were splattered. I began to throw them back to whence they came, yet there were hundreds, and lemming-like, they were hell-bent on this self-destructive course. Bloody cars! I, myself, was hell-bent on Coles licorice allsorts later on, and took a five mile detour to satisfy this biological need. When returning along the same stretch of highway, much to my relief, I noticed the caterpillars had learned the error of their ways and were heading off to pupate, or whatever, in a different direction. Good to be out on the open road and away from the screaming children in Maccas. The terrain was flat and dull, and the only interesting things were of an industrial nature - the enormous alumina plant and rumbling goods trains, their hundred cars brimming over with coal (reminiscent of the caterpillars).
Listened to the radio on my MP3 player and it was uniformly awful (nauseatingly nice presenters and hard sell ads) until I settled on a light music station who played an instrumental version of Waltzing Matilda. The jazz and classical tunes calmed my nerves when I returned to Brucey. Nasty to see you, to see you... When approaching dusk I look left, to the setting sun, and right, to the dwindling post-rush-hour traffic, and breathe a sigh of relief; I've survived another day. It's pretty good doing what I'm doing, but it could be so much more pleasant with less heat and vehicles.

I'd sustained my first puncture yesterday and replaced the innertube with my one spare. Now I got my second. Together with laziness, the encroaching darkness and closeness to the next port of call in Rockhampton, I decided to ride on an increasingly flat tyre for the last 10 kms. I phoned Wayne and he came out to escort me on his motorbike. By now the tyre was airless and I bumped along slowly for another 10 kms through the vast suburbs of a town with a population a tenth of Glasgow but surely bigger in area. So relieved to arrive at tonight's address, where a luxurious rest day sprawled out in front of me. I said before, that Chris in Port McQuarry was a professional Couchsurfer, but even he is small beer compared to Wayne and Margot. During my initial search for couches in Oz, I'd alighted on a photo of a mature couple beaming from a motorbike and sidecar, and thought, "I want to stay with those people!" Their status as the Daddy and Mummy of traveller hosting is boosted by their retirement, their worldwide tours (even by Antipodean standards) and the time they share with their guests. I saw their guestbooks (they're halfway through the second) full of smiling faces, names, addresses and thank you cards. They even went on a European tour, where they stayed exclusively with people who they'd hosted. There was boxes of subject-indexed brochures, maps, etc, a section of toiletries for common use in the bathroom, a feminine hygiene plastic tub in the toilet marked 'women' and boxes of tissues on tables either side of the bed I slept in.

After showering (like a good boy) Wayne said there were only two rules, "1. Relax and 2. Enjoy yourself". During a dinner of pasta, meat and other tasty things, lubricated with beer and wine, this lovely couple related their six years unrivalled experiences as hosts and travellers. They were so easy going and open, that they had got on with just about everybody and welcomed all age groups, including teenagers. They took people around, had helped youngsters in all kinds of fixes and kept in touch with many of them. The only thing Wayne was not keen on was picking up stranded travellers off a Greyhound bus in the middle of the night (between 12 and 6) so in that department Chris reigns supreme. Oh, and Rocky doesn't have a koala hospital.