Friday, 30 March 2012

Grafton to Evans Head



With such a lot to write about yesterday, I clean forgot playing Scrabble with Chester. He beat me with two bingos to my one. It was only 10 pm at that time, but he didn't want a rematch, the bugger! Took the pedestrian path on the bridge across the Clarence River, connecting South Grafton with the main part of town. I was glad Chester (and Steve) had told me about it, because it ran underneath the busy narrow road, and I might not have noticed it. In Westpac Bank, when asking to change travellers' cheques, I was taken into a private room and asked lots of questions. It took ages, and although it wasn't unpleasant, I shouldn't have quipped to the young female teller later on, "Do you want a urine sample as well?" Nice ride through open land, twisting by the aforementioned river to Lawrence, where it was a good thing I checked to see if I had any phone messages before boarding the ferry... I'd left it on a picnic table. McLean is a Scottish theme park of a town, with numerous shops and cafes milking Scottishness, as well as every lamp post bearing a different tartan.

Had to rush to make the last ferry of the day from Yamba to Iluka at 4.45. Hot and thirsty, I felt like John Mills in Ice Cold in Alex, when I was relieved to find a bar on such a tiny vessel, and purchased a bottle of beer. Before we could cast sail, a fisherman had to move from the roof to the wharf. He'd hooked a stingray, but it would take some time to reel it in. Sitting on the deck of a ferry in warm, calm waters; that's the way to travel. Arriving at Iluka, I popped into a petrol station, as I needed a map for the remainder of the day's ride. The man gave me a $7 one for free. What a freeloading bastard! It was then that I relaised there was a 40 mile ride ahead of me and by now it was 5.15. It was boring, although satisfying as well, to ride as fast as possible along a straight highway as night fell. I was kind of mad with myself though for adding 10 miles on to my journey (and the ferry ride) to avoid rush hour highway traffic. Someone honked at me when I was wel within the 10 foot shoulder. What's your problem you speed-munching, tail-gating swine? Luckily, when arriving at Couchsurfer Kirra's house in Evan's Head at 8.45, she was still at work and didn't complain about my lateness... She had left keys in her mailbox and I was dropping off to sleep when she arrived n hour later. Kirra had pre-prepared a lamb stew and told me all about her various jobs (surfing teacher, lifeguard, supply teacher, barmaid, etc) as well as her entry in this year's Rickshaw Rally across India. Surfing is her passion though and her car can't fit in the garage, such is the number of boards in there. Nature news : kept awake by millions of squawking bats living in gumtrees opposite the house. Confectionery news : discovered Cole's Jelly Babies (like Swedish Fish).

Thursday, 29 March 2012

Toormina to Grafton




Received this today :

Just looked at your blog. You left a bad taste, Adrian, in your mouth and mine.

Pity you didn’t take my cycling advice, and a pity I agreed to having you during the week instead of the weekend -see my Warmshowers listing. I went out of my way to host you to have you arrive so inconsiderately late to a near burnt dinner, expect everything to suit your needs and then make a rude remark about me on a public blog. Are free-loaders always such charmers?

May we both live and learn.

Patricia


I just wish she'd posted a comment instead of me having to copy and paste from an email. Sheesh! Everyone's entitled to their view of course. This was my reply :

Hi Patricia,

Sorry if I offended you. I'm also sorry I turned up so late, but had no idea it would take that long to get through Sydney. It has to be said you are somewhat uptight and I'm not sure if you should be hosting people. I'm sure everyone else I have stayed with would regard me as a guest and not as a freeloader. I bought a bottle of wine and I host people as well after all.

Best wishes,

Adrian


Steve related more fascinating tales. Once he'd discovered a cyclist lying by the roadside in the dark, took him to hospital, following which he recuperated at the house for six weeks. He was a Norwegian on a world tour. What a freeloader! Another touring cyclist who stayed was a British Olympic triathlete, who would ride 150 kms before noon every day! Zoomed into the fair-sized town of Coff's Harbour at the tail-end of the rush hour. Crossing bridges can be a heart-in-mouth situation, as the shoulder suddenly disappears. Steve had told me the safest option is to move into the middle of the lane, so traffic can't pass. What, with trucks bearing down on you at 60 mph? No thank you. I'm sure a lot of drivers are mad with me for being there, on their road, and feel justified in teaching me a lesson by not slowing down AT ALL and whizzing by an inch from my mirror. Passed the Indigenous Co-ordination Centre en route to the library, before heading to Grafton on an alternative route to the highway on printed-out maps Steve had supplied. I'm such a freeloader. (It's called humour Patricia!) Today it was hot and windless, and toiling uphill, stickily arduous. Then, downnhill, the breeze and cooling sweat; what a tonic. Had the sudden need to take a dump in long grass off a long driveway. Someone drove past 10 yards away...

In South Grafton the McDonald's (those 30 cent ice creams are hard to resist) is on the first floor of a building and customers have to climb about 30 steps. It's something I suppose.

Today I met two of the most fascinating characters I've yet to encounter. The first was an Aboriginal who sidled up to me, a little worse for wear, with a bottle of wine in a brown paper bag. He introduced himself as Colin and told me his life history, as if he'd been provided especially for my benefit by the state. Originally from Sydney, he'd stolen money as a boy and spent it in arcades. Up before the judge his father persuaded him not to pass a custodial sentence; instead he would look after the boy at his ancestral homelands on a river island near Grafton. Between the age of eight and 12 he lived in a tin hut with hessian sacks drawn over empty window frames. Later he became an alcoholic, dried up in rehab for three years, then returned to his people and the bottle. He told me he was "pissed off" with his cousin, who had been taking a nap in the toilet of a motel with him, but was nowhere to be seen when Colin woke up. Now he had no-one to drink with - although he told me he was a smoker (of marijuana) and not a drinker - except for Johnnie Walker.

The other interesting character I spent time with was my Couchsurfer, Chester. Chester, who was about to retire from elderly care work, lived in a ramshackle house with his shih tzu/Jack Russell, Molly, a fearsme creature who liked to bite and scratch A LOT. With a charming knack of downplaying his achievements, he had lived in Europe for most of the seventies (including a squat in Notting Hill) where he had worked as an illustrator for Private Eye and the legendary Oz magazine. More recently he lived in a tent for ten years in the bush in northern Queensland's Gulf Country. His 'project' at that time was the production of a linocut set of tarot cards. He cut the linos in the bush, made a printing press and then screen-printed them in full colour (not in the bush I don't think). After printing 61 editions, he made individual wooden boxes for each deck. These were made with separate tongue-and-grouve pieces that slotted together. The man is a genius. He is in the throes of doing up his home and has already built the kitchen units, using two types of wood (salvaged from next door). The draws slid beautifully. Unfortunately I had missed the homemade ravioli from a couple of nights back, lain out in a two-part compartmented wooden mould of his own creation. Instead, snags (sausages) boiled spinach from the garden and potatoes, followed by peaches and custard. The bathroom was au natruel; walls on one side, nothing on the other. I really liked the feeling of taking a shower looking on to a garden and didn't feel in the least bit embarrassed. You could just about be seen from a couple of next-door's windows - and if this was in the UK, people would complain and the police would be down on you like a ton of bricks.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Bowraville to Toormina

Forgot to close the window (there's always a screen to prevent the beasties getting in) and was kept awake by torrential rain and woken by the rooster. There's only two chooks left, as the rest have been taken by foxes - and goannas snack on all the eggs. Eileen told me about a woman she knows who was the first person to ride across the south of Australia on a horse. She did it to raise money for cancer, as her 18-year-old daughter had died from a melanoma. That explains why all children and many adults walk about with sunhats on, even when it's cloudy. Talking of which, it was cloudy, cool and a bit drizzly during an easy ride up the highway to Toormina. It was warmer in London goddamnit! Cycling news : nothing to report.

Nature news : a lot to report! How did the dead chicken cross the road? It was carried in small pieces by ants. When stopping in a forest for a typical lunch of chicken, mayonnaise and salad on wholemeal, I dropped a piece of said chicken; whereupon a wood ant tried to haul it away. The piece was maybe 50 times its weight, but it wouldn't give up, even though it could barely move it a millimetre. It seemed to be chewing at it in the hope a chunk would fall off. I put another, smaller bit beside it, and after stepping on it for a while (still battling with the larger bit) it turned its attentions to this other piece only ten times its weight. The ant dragged it in a dead straight line across the path (how on earth do they navigate?) until I lost it in undergrowth. Occasionally smaller, green, shiny ants would try to teal a piece, and every couple of feet (ie a mile for the ant) it would stop and clean its antenna with its front legs. I could watch ants all day and today my low mileage allowed for it.

In Toormina I hooked up with Warm Showers stalwarts Steve and Kerry, along with their son Dylan and dog... I'm sure it began with a T... no it's gone. Steve gave me the obligatory beach patrol in his van, and then we enjoyed a very tasty lasagne. Steve, a keen cyclist, builds and fixes his bikes (including welding) and takes part in mountain rides with a local group. He showed me his phone app, which records the route (including which side of the road he's on - when weaving up steep hills for example) and all kinds of stats, including highest altitude and graphs of speed and altitude. He is one of those very practical people, who will try his hand at anything, especially where saving money is involved. When his automatic car's reverse gear went kaput he fixed the gearbox, even though it took him 100 hours. Another time when he broke down in a creek, he went home, borrowed a marquee from the company he works for, erected it beside the vehicle (now hauled by tractor to a farmer's field) and worked on it for two days solid. Unfortunately he still couldn't fix it and had to have it towed home, where using the extensive tools in his garage, he got it running again. He also showed me the hammock he takes on cycling expeditions. I've never seen anything like it; it's a hammock/tent/sleeping bag in one; ie it's covered - and being off the ground there's less chance of getting wet in a downpour and most of the beasties are kept at bay. I say most, because of course the beasties will get you in the end...

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Port McQuarie to Bowraville

Bought a propelling pencil yesterday and promptly lost it - that's three so far. Left Port McQuarie behind and a most generous host. Chris had a guest book, in which I read that he had picked people up from a Greyhound bus stop at 4.30 am. What a guy. A cute chain ferry took me and my bike across the mouth of a river for free and then we turned onto a monotonous dirt track through the bush. Went into a trance, from which I was only wakened when tractor tracks had me vibrating like a jelly. After this, tarmac roads twisted pleasingly beside rivers and through rich, dairy pastures, where cattle and horses feasted on thick, wild weeds. Following Smithtown had to re-engage wit the enemy (highway traffic) although apart from b-doubles (trucks with two containers) sending ripples through the shoulder, it wasn't too bad. At Macksville I took a left-hand turn and headed for Bowraville, up a lush, green valley. It looked a bit like England in summertime - apart from the occasional palm tree - and the men who cheerily waved to me from the seats of their tractor lawn mowers. Taking a country road from Bowraville, in which I knew the Warm Showers couple were, I discovered that houses/farms were widely spaced, and as the street number I was searching for had three figures, I phoned to enquire what distance remained. In the country, apparently house numbers refer to the distance along the road; ie 242 will be roughly 2.42 km from the start of that road.

I say a couple, although in fact, sadly, Eileen's partner had died since I made contact two months previously. Eileen's house was an open-plan wooden construction, with tree-trunk beams, overlooking fruit trees and distant mountains. Here she lived with her farm dog, Wobble Arse (so named because he wasn't much cop at rounding up livestock). We discussed our cycle trips over a restorative beef curry and plum cake with ice cream, lubricated with homebrew made by her departed husband. Not only does Eileen lead a busy life gardening and picking fruit - as well as going to heaps of keep fit classes - but she also has six children and umpteen grandchildren, scattered the length and breadth of the state, who she visits regularly.

We sat down to watch a series about a depressed country town, where they are renting out abandoned farms for $1 to encourage an influx of new people and thereby kick-start the local economy. A few minutes into the programme there was a power cut and by the time it came back on, it was the closing credits.

Nature report : no nature to report.

Monday, 26 March 2012

Port McQuarie



Chris had left for work by the time I surfaced and after a leisurely breakfast, I meandered into the CBD via a footpath via beaches and jungles. It really is divine here and I'm so glad I chose Chris and this town for a day off. During the night I heard all manner of rustlings, squeaks and scrabbling sounds, but couldn't see anything out there. One bird here makes a squark that's identical to the beep of the pedestrian crossing and it makes you wonder whether it has tried to mate with lamp posts. Of all the beaches - Flynn's, Shelly, Rocky, Miners', Nobby's - you would expect the nudist community to be housed on the last; yet that was not where I was greeted to a close-up view of a man's bits dangling from beneath a T shirt (it was a little cool to go topless). Beautiful, bronzed bodies abounded, engaged in a variety of sports. In the town centre it was a different business, and I've never witnessed such a conglomeration of fat in a small area. Once they hit 25, it seems the locals are done for. When you can get ice cream for 30 cents in McDonald's, what hope have the fatties got?

Met up with Chris later on and he took me to the Koala Hospital. It's true! There really is such a place. Here in trees surrounded by greased barriers (so they can't escape) I saw a variety of the creatures in various states of fluffiness. One only had three legs and another was a hunchback. Their names derived from where they were found, such as Settlement Point Bea and Dunbogan Dave. Sadly I couldn't get close up and photographing them turned out to be pointless. The volunteers get to take babies home! When they reach a healthy weight they are returned to the same place they were found. One woman had phoned up to ask the hospital to take a koala away because it wa keeping her awake at night! Apparently they are fiercely territorial and make a noise like a pig. There was also this 'wild' male who visited the surrounding trees who they'd christened Romeo.

Chris took me on a tree tour in the hope we'd see koalas in the wild (we saw one). Of course they sleep (up to 20 hours a day!) during the daytime and look like little buddhas, curled up and precariously propped up in the v of two branches. Then it was back to his place for more delicious food and Chris's reminisences of his boarding school days, starting from seven up. Watched a bit of a kitsch eighties drama all about espionage, nazis and prostitutes, but haven't been able to find it on Google, so wonder if I dreamt it.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Forster to Port Macquarie


Passed happy clappy Christians rejoicing outside before leaving Forster, then rejoined the highway. It wasn't too bad today, being Sunday, and there was a ten foot shoulder. Stopped at two oases; the first was a huge McDonald's, full of the horizontally challenged, ordering their mid-morning Big Macs. In the queue a voice behind growled, "Do you always push in mate?" I turned to see a big, bearded bear of a man.

Me : "No, I was in front of this lady" (who had sidled up alongside me)
He : "Trust me to open my big mouth."

He was a teddy bear. (Question : are Teddies true bears?) The second oasis was a cafe/gallery in a barn, again in the middle of nowhere. Here genteel old ladies sat in the garden drinking tea, while listening to a pair of damsels plucking out soft Medieval ditties on lutes (not actually from the Medieval era). No one was looking at the art, which was truly dreadful. No, I tell a lie, Brian Sewell was having an apoplectic fit in the corner. It was as if the artists had been trying to create the worst possible combination of subject matter, colour and form, as some sort of Heston Blumenthal inspired experiment.

At another stop, pieces of chicken and cucumber, dropped from a sandwich were soon recoloured black, as hundreds of ants swarmed over them. Human beings may well run the big stuff on the planet, but the zillions of ants control the little things. In other nature news, I saw a three to four inch spider on its nest with stripey legs and an abdomen like a mushroom. Next to it, and about a hundredth of its weight, there was this black spider that I assumed to be its (her) mate. Size clearly doesn't matter with this species. Then there were these mercury dots with legs that were presumably the offspring. Also, there was a neat line of 'parcelled up' flies. Maybe this was a spider grocery. In the groove today, whizzing along at 15-20 mph. Leaving the highway for the coast road at Kew, I saw camels in a field and then a dingo running across the road.

A quarter of a mile from my host's house in Port Macquarrie, a short-lived downpour had me scurrying under a palm tree. Veteran Couchsurfer Chris (he's had nearly 500 guests in the last six years) lives in a stunning wooden retreat, with different levels and a high, sloping ceiling. What's even more stunning is the rainforest backdrop. Here he regularly sees koalas, possums, and a two metre goanna (lizard) is a regular visitor on his deck, where it nicks the cat food. To make it up to the lovely black Bonny, I gave her access to my lap, which she purringly resided as we sat on the deck, sipping beer, as huge, black cockroaches scuttled by. Dinner was unbelievably tasty - and I helped by chopping veg and herbs (all from the garden) including chillies. I foolishly rubbed my eye afterwards... Combined with chicken, Chris cooked up a sizzling Vietnamese curry in his wok. What a fascinating guy. Originally from Bristol, he met some Ozzies there and came out to visit them. That was '74 and he has lived here ever since, working on a prawn trawler, farming in the bush and now, working for the Waterboard. Brown as a nut and skinny as a rake, he seems to derive the most pleasure from travelling and meeting other travellers.

Tea Gardens to Forster


Breakfasted outside, overlooking a freshwater pond and dodging the automated sprinkler system. Dreamy 20 mile cycle along a flat, quiet, jungley road, 20 miles of jungley dirt track and a further 20 on an only slightly busier road. I was slightly confused as to which track to take through the Mayall Lakes National Park, and then who should pop up, but Bronwyn, unrecogniseable in her uniform. What were the chances? To begin with I was moving at 6 mph on gravel, then sand cropped up and I had to walk for a bit. Luckily it improved to solid earth. The only vehicle that passed me was driven by a university lecturer conducting a biodiversity survey (regular traffic was verboten : hurrah!) Later I passed him and as he told me of the sugar glider he'd encountered, I spied the wine bottle next to him. Nice work if you can get it. Well, I encountered my first big beetle, stumbling across the track. Later I discovered it was a jewel beetle; a black and gold beauty. I also approached an ants' nest and all these fearsome red ants, at least an inch long, poured out to repel the invader!

I arrived in Forster half an hour early and found that my hosts lived next to the sea. Discovering a lookout, affording fabulous views of the late afternoon sun slanting on the pristine beaches and turquoise water, I took photos and drank in the scenery. "Are you Adrian?" I turned to see a couple behind me, who had spotted my bike and come out to greet me. Helen and Eugene told me I was the first Warm Showers person to turn up on time, as usually cycle tourers don't stick to a tight schedule like me. First we walked the dog, Micky, a 14-year-old Dalmatian and then it was back to their heavenly fifties home for mojitos. We had a barbecued thick, juicy steak with fresh salad and herbs from the garden (including 'chocolate mint' which really did smell chocolately) followed by freshly-cooked brownies and ice cream. Helen, a chiropracter, and Eugene, a technical writer, were soon to be wed and their honeymoon will be on Lord Howe Island, all on its own, a few hundred miles directly east of here. It looked like paradice in the photos - a mix of mountain and beach - with a tiny, precarious-looking landing strip. Interested in financial matters, Eugene told me how Australia was only enjoying a temporary boom, during Chinese growth. He described his homeland as 'China's mine' and 'China's paddy field' - apparently rice is grown up north.

To cap the perfect day... we played Scrabble! My first game in the country. It started out as a three-hander, but as Eugene was driving four hours to Sydney (and back again) the next day, he soon retired, leaving Helen and I to battle on. I played the sublime QIBLA (the point towards which Moslems pray) for 72 points (triple Q/double word) to seal my adversary's fate.

What a great day!

Friday, 23 March 2012

Newcastle to Tea Gardens



I certainly saw evidence of the coal industry today. Wow! Felt dwarfed by the slag heaps, the cranes, converyor belts, warehouses, silos and God knows what other gubbins, some of which were the size of ships. The smell of the stuff hung heavy in the hot air. The wind was once again on my side, shuttling me along a straight, flat road up another peninsula. Yes, once again I took a ferry, rather than ride the long way round, against the wind and then on the highway. As the plant subsided, so the trees thickened and the traffic thinned. The trees provided scintillating company; is there anything better than trees in full leaf sighing and swaying in the breeze.

Nelson Bay was a bit of a dump; touristy, commercial and full of miserable-looking fat Brits. I reneged on another promise - not to partake of any American fast food - and bought a Subway sandwich. The ride in the tiny, rickety ferry was a lot of fun, replete with sea spray and a friendly captain dispensing information. A lady who worked in a national park befriended me and gave me a lot more helpful tips about wildlife and my route, which will go through her park tomorrow. She picked me up when I said 'koala bears' as they are not bears at all of course. I still haven't seen one and hope not to have to go to a zoo for the privelge. Bronwyn also invited me to stay with her! I declined, however, or rather, changed the subject, not out of fear but embarrassment. Had to pay $2 extra for the bike though - the cheek of it! Arrived in Tea Gardens (named after an unsuccessful tea plantation) which was much prettier and more sedate than across the bay. I like the way all the houses are unique shapes here, a mixture of wood and brick, and different colours; that along with the tremendous variety of foliage makes for a very ambient environment to wander around.

Stayed with yet another well-travelled couple, who have hosted a great many Couchsurfers in a large, double bedroom - and private bathroom. Retired Kiwi Stephanie and Tasmanian Rex live in a beautiful, big, open-plan bungalow, bustling with objects and paintings from the obscure places they have visited. They were extremely good-natured and interesting company, as well as stuffing me to the gunnels with pasta and baked bananas. They also drove me round the neighbourhood and showed me the beaches where they regularly swim and row their kayaks. Rex bought a bespoke traditional Indonesian boat recently for $1,000 - and substantially more to ship it. Next week they are heading to these islands again, en route to Iran no less!

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Wyong to Newcastle



As the next pit stop was only a kangaroo hop away, last night Michael had suggested taking me surfing. First we had yummy pancakes with maple syrup and fresh fruit; then Michael took me to the coast. As we were driving to the beach I noticed the absence of a surf board and my host said there was no surf and was just showing me round. A lucky escape! I half want to try, but feel it will be a lost cause. Stopping in McDonald's for coffee (of course like all coffee here, it's excellent) there was an elderly woman who was the spit of Miss Marple (flowery dress and sun hat) ordering a double cheeseburger. At 11 am. What is the world coming to? Soon rejoined the highway. Hell hath no fury like a car scorned. Whose idea was it for me to travel up the east coast anyway? I should have stuck to my guns and gone up the middle. On the road I'm a nuisance to car drivers and on the pavement I'm a nuisance to pedestrians. Everyone should be cheerily waving and thanking me for saving the planet goddamnit! "Thank you so much for reminding me about the plight of the environment. I shall extricate my lardy posterior from the comfy seat of my 4x4 forthwith and buy a bicycle straight away!"

Later on I calmed myself by watching an inch-long black ant foraging in the undergrowth and paralysing another half its size. The victor cleaned its posterior (which had injected poison presumably) with big yellow mandibles. However, the fact that the twitching adversary was left behind seemed to suggest the killer's role was simply to eliminate the competition. In the grass no one can hear you scream. Meanwhile the mega metal ants rampaged by searching for cyclists to mow down.

Newcastle seemed quite a pleasant town. Inland is Hunter Valley, famed for wine production, as well as coal mines. Apparently Newcastle is the largest exporter of coal in the world, most of it bound for China, and the tankers queue up round the clock to collect it. There was no evidence of grubby industry in the part of town where I was heading, with its brightly painted houses, beaches, joggers and dog-walkers. Rang the bell at the address in my itinerary and the woman who answered looked confused.

Me : "Is it Wendy?"
She : "No, Lindy."
Me : "And Jeremy?"
She : "There's no one here of that name."

Oh no, not again... Couldn't get through on the phone, so continued down a massive hill into the centre and regroup. Then Wendy phoned back. I had written down the wong house number again and had to go up that hill again. From Warm Showers, Wendy and Jeremy cooked up a welcome bowl of pasta with cold beer poured into frosty glasses (people often keep glasses in the freezer). We compared cycling notes and they told me that, although they have a whole host of bikes, the collapsible Bromptoms are their favourites, not because they put them in the car or in public transport usually, but they are easier to carry up two flights of stairs.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Sydney to Wyong




Forgot to mention it was my younger brother, Neil's, birthday yesterday. Happy day after your birthday Neil!

Had to leave early today as Patricia didn't want me to stay after she went to work, which is fair enough and I don't begrudge having to get up in the middle of night and, bleary-eyed, venture into the world at 6.30 am... Nice morning to be up at that time though, as I returned to the town centre for internet and money-changing. Glad to finally head north and get away from Sydney and the pretentious people of Manly power-walking their pugs. Scuzzier suburbs and quieter roads up the peninsula (although still too bloody busy and fast for my liking). Followed Patricia's advice and cheated at Palm Beach, by taking the ferry across to the mainland at Etalong. Otherwise I would have had to return into Sydney and then head west to the highway. adding an extra 50 kms onto the day's mileage. I wouldn't have minded had it not been for the city traffic. The ferry ride was sensational, weaving in and out of serene bays, and the countryside at the other end was equally pretty. Stopped in Woy Woy for a spinach & ricotta roll and hedgehog slice (refrigerator cake) and it came to four quid!

Back on the dreaded highway there was a cycle lane which kept varying in width from six feet to non-existent, especially when the road had to narrow across bridges or whatever. This is irresponsible on behalf of the Council, who shouldn't be leading cyclists up the garden path. If a car knocked me down when I suddenly had to veer into a car lane it wouldn't be totally the fault of the nazi drivers. Most of the time I thought to myself, "Keep to the left of the white line! Keep to the left of the white line!" and I would remain alive. The equivalent of traffic islands here are aptly named traffic refuges; if you can get to one it might be your refuge for quite some time. The traffic really thickens and speeds up in the rush hour of course and I should really try to reach destinations earlier. Then, unbeknownst to me, all of a sudden I was on the freeway. I was permitted to be there though, as I saw a sign which read, "Cyclists must use shoulder." Well, I was hardly going to use the fast lane. Unlike a lot of Brits, Ozzy drivers do at least indicate when changing lanes, I'll say that for them.

In Wyong I discovered the area of Budgewoi, where I was headed, was a further 15 miles away; so beetling onwards, I finally reached the street where the Couchsurfers in question resided. It was here that, while going slowly looking at street names, that a woman honked at me. I looked back and she gestured, "What are you doing?" with her hands - just because she was delayed a second or two behind me. I flipped her the bird and told her where to get off. At the side of the road I'll go as slowly as I effing well want to goddamnit! According to the itinerary, their house number was 2-45. I went to 45, 2 and would have gone to 245 if the numbers had gone up that high. I tried phoning them, but the number I had was unattainable. I had the wrong address and phone number. The couple weren't listed in the phone book I borrowed at a sports club, but a lady there told me about some new townhouses further down the street, that were divided into units. It turned out to be 2-46 or something. Phew! Aimee had to go to a Jehovah's Witness meeting, leaving me with Michael, who would have gone with Aimee because he didn't think I was coming, except he had a hoarse voice. He made me dinner and we sat in recliner chairs, beers in hand, watching the motorbike adventures of Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman. OK, so it looked pretty rough on Mongolian dirt roads, where their bikes kept falling over and parts of them broke - but at least they had support vehicles and had hired local assistants.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Sydney




Patricia had left for work before I got up. I wondered if the morning rain was connected to the tornado that had struck Townsville last night. Later it brightened up and was perfect for a spot of de rigeur opera house and harbour bridge viewing. First up, as I've nearly completed 1,000 miles, I had a new chain fitted, as well as doing laundry and shopping in salubrious Manly. The streets drip with beautiful, confident people carrying yoga mats and surf boards. The women, who look snooty and walk proudly, all seem to be with babies, pregnant or at least possess child-bearing hips. The men, who are obviously manly, all have toussled hair and look super-confident. Even the birds are assertive here - one clucked at me for not giving it a piece of bread. Sat by the beach (not on the beach) in the shade (not in the sun) with all my clothes on (not with everything on show). What is the thing with beaches? I don't get it and did NOT come here to get sand between my toes.

Took the ferry to Sydney with a thousand other tourists and came back in the rush hour with commuters who make this journey every day and don't look up from their Kindles. It has to be said that the gleaming city's outlook, huddled around a large bay, is amazing, and for a country that so far has seemed a bit lacking (in I don't know what) it's at least better to be lacking it in such a superb, sunny location. Off the boat I simply walked a long way up one street, crossed to another parallel one and walked back again, popping into book and comic shops along the way. I didn't know what else to do, as I'm not really interested in sight-seeing per se. Obviously I took photos and breathed in the atmosphere. The women mostly wear tight skirts and high heels, the buildings are tall and there was an old man in a mobility scooter with a stereo blasting Rawhide. That's about it really.

Reconvened with my host later, who had been at her French conversation class and we all dined at a succulent sushi restaurant. In class they weren't permitted to use English (although a couple slipped into Esperanto) but over their weekly dinner together they weren't supposed to speak in French - although some couldn't help themselves. Here I met Dee, an old lady from the Tablelands area near Cairns and urged me to go there. She said that people born there go back to die, so I said "Don't ever go back". She was entertaining and came out with, "Je suis full the noo," to keep the Auld Alliance strong. There was a German in attendance as well who has spent the winter months of the preceeding 12 years in Manly and the remainder in the Fatherland, as he can be based anywhere for his business consultancy work.

Monday, 19 March 2012

Wollongong to Sydney

What a day! Part wow/part grrr. Breakfast with the parents, grandparents and less animated children. There was everything on offer from toast (for me) to last night's dinner and scones with jam and cream. I thought the little compartment for milk in the fridge was a neat idea; this door opened vertically, creating a little table to rest your coffee and pour in milk - without warming the rest of the fridge. I was given an Ugg Boot keyring and Indonesian paper money as parting gifts. Today's ride started off very well; quiet and flat. Road signs in the country are good, but in urban areas less so. I had been following signs to Bulli, then reached a junction... and nothing. A man directed me and said there might be a sign at the next junction by way of an apology on behalf of his country. People's eyebrows rise in an expression of disbelief wherever I tell them I'm going, even if it's only a few miles. Their lack of faith in my abilities is annoying, although it's probably more to do with the fact that they don't walk or cycle and have no appreciation of distance. At first the way was straight and boring, past endless fast food outlets, strip malls and light industry, reminiscent of the boring parts of California. Then, along the coast, it was like The Big Sur, where the road twisted and undulated in a mad fashion, in front of cliffs and mansions, overlooking a choppy ocean. Steep ascents are more manageable in cool, cloudy conditions. So glad I'm heading north, with the wind at my back; so far my research has paid off. I crossed the levitating section of road (a photo of which appears in an early posting) before entering the Royal National Park. There were hangliders circling above the bay, far, far below and I watched one take off; he had a mobile phone attached to one of the struts, but it might be difficult to make a call just before crashing. It cost $220 for a tandem ride, but I wouldn't do it if they paid me ten times this amount. Blissful through the leafy park, with hardly any traffic. How that would change...

Appoaching Sydney I had to rejoin the highway, which was scary even with a shoulder, but so much more so when it disappeared. Here, two or three lanes of cars whizzed by wihout any consideration for my safety. They don't slow down or give any room AT ALL. My road rage had been beaten into submission as soon as someone shouted at me and, tail between my legs, I scurried onto a footpath. This was for pedestrians, not bikes, and although there weren't many of the former, the few who stepped aside, wore faces of thunder, eventhough I thanked them. Where was I supposed to go?! Stupid, fucking cars. All hail the automobile. The pedestrian and cyclist must make way for the magnificent, metal machines. We must wait for ages at every crossing (with their bloody blip, blip, blipping sound) until we are given the right of way and then we must rush as fast as our little legs carry us. Unlike at home, it's impossible to jaywalk on busy roads because the traffic moves so fast and constantly. All hail the gas-guzzling, angry, huge, shiny SUVs with their darkened windows, and their fat, vile drivers. There had been nowhere to stop for lunch and now it was too late, I was hot and bothered and insane with the selfish, indulgent madness of the human race such as it is at this period in history. Surely future generations will look back and laugh at our greedy, non-environmental ways. How much better the world could be... Sigh... Cars should be utilaritan Trabants with an inbuilt top speed of 20 mph. Hundreds of thousands of deaths would be avoided across the globe every year. Cars shouldn't be desirable status symbols. Look at my killing machine - aren't you envious? There should be a total ban on car advertising. cyclists and pedestrians should come first goddamnit.

No-one I know reading this will give me a lift now and I'll end up having to buy a car...

Then, as in heavy rain, I went into a kind of trance of acceptance and rose above it. I'm better than you bastards and I'll bloody well have a good time whatever obstacles are thrown in my path. With twilight, the street lights came on, the traffic thinned and beautiful women came out to play, as I approached the CBD with it's shining temples of mammon. The main road twoards the Sydney Harbour Bridge was without a doubt the nastiest I have ever ridden. Not only was there no shoulder and the cars were hurtling by at 60 mph, but sliproads were entering and suddenly I was inbetween two rivers of metal. If I had found myself between two trucks it could have been strawberry jam time (I heard of that happening to a cyclist once). There was no going back and I had be bold.

When I reached the Harbour Bridge there was a cycle path. Phew! The urban cyclists (a separate breed from me) whizzed past, ignoring me, bedecked in lycra and lights. I was on the wrong side and didn't see the opera house at all and obviously couldn't see the bridge because I was on it! There were security guards stationed here, watching out for terrorists apparently. Across the bridge, one of these cycle commuters took pity on me looking puzzled at a city centre map and deigned to help me get to the northern suburb of Manly. Scott was very nice and it was fun riding in his wake (apart from the stench of sweat). He said the traffic was worse in London. Was he mad? He turned off, but not before supplying simple directions that even I could follow. I didn't give a damn about the rain that had turned from drizzle to downpour and only cared about reaching my destination as soon as possible.

It was 9 pm by the time I arrived at Warm Showers host Patricia's stylish unit, and I was starving, soaked and exhausted. Only 74 miles, but the hardest day thus far - give me Tom Groggin's Pass in the Snowy's any day. Patricia, who was born in Fiji, with a beautifully clipped accent, and works as a teacher of English as a foreign language, fixed a roast chicken and vegtable, which really, really hit the spot. Changed out of wet clothes, I was home and dry and had licorice allsorts and my beetle book to look forward to, spread-eagled across a silky, maroon, double bed.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Nowra to Wollongong




So the man in the slideshow was the old lady's husband, who died two years ago, and made me feel melancholy. The Nowra Warm Showers couple weren't actually a couple at all, but another solitary mature woman and she phoned to apologise for last night. She said she had to do an emergency shift the night before, in a home for disabled people and had completely forgotten about my visit. Cath invited me round for breakfast, as it was only around the corner, and we compared cycling stories. Well into her 60s with arthritic hands, she had ridden across the middle of Australia with her sister - and had camped all the way! She agreed with me that drivers weren't very considerate here and told of the many times people had thrown things at her. One time when she was riding in a single-file convoy a passenger had opened and closed the car door inbetween each of the cyclists in her group as the car was passing by at speed, but luckily didn't hit anyone.

Able to come off the highway and cut a swathe through rich, gentle arable land next to the coast. Stopped at bays a couple of times, although it was not really beach weather being quite cool and overcast. Another easy day's riding, licked along by a salty breeze and drizzle. It seemed like the traffic was becoming busier and more mental every kilometre closer to Sydney and sometimes the shoulder disapperaerd. Den den den... In Gerringong I had just noticed a cycle path the other side of the verge and was about to transfer onto it when a tatooed arm gesticulated to it out of a car window and a voice shouted at me. A red mist descended and I deployed my best Anglo Saxon.

In Wollongong I saw my first cycle tourers and initially thought she was carrying all the gear, until spotting the trailer he towed. They were going in the opposite direction, against the wind, but too far away for me to talk to them, across a sea of traffic. Wollongong is a fair-sized big town and it was here that I went into the biggest shopping centre I have ever been in (my host told me later that it was nothing compared to Asian ones). From where I left my bike I had to walk about a mile through a car park, endless corridors and malls before reaching my goal : Cole's Supermarket - for their prized allsorts - and therefore worth the detour. Had forgotten to print a map of Mount St Thomas and the ripped atlas page didn't even show the suburb. Bus shelters and stops are no use here whatsoever; they don't even have timetables let alone maps. Found it eventually and stayed here with Couchsurfers David and Ing, their children, grandparents, friends and malamutes. The puppies were adorable, but had just killed two of the household's chickens and a duck that very day. The grandparents served up steaming plates of Indonesian food, with wine, ice cream and Bailey's. Ing sorts mail by night and is so busy with household chores that she only gets two or three hours sleep a day. David is an engineer in the local steel works. A bustling, noisy household for sure, although it sure was a stimulating experience.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Ulladulla to Nowra

Bloody awful day. My Couchsurfer wasn't at home and (much, much worse than that) the miniature poodles nicked my chocolate supplies! I foolishly left (virtually a whole) 350g bar of Dairy Milk unattended in the bedroom with the door open. The combined weight of both dogs couldn't have been much more than this bar and I hope they were very, very sick. Because it was still raining in the morning, a light day's cycling lay in front of me and it was the weekend, Bruce gave me a tour of the vicinity. Highlights included beaches, beaches and yet more beaches; there was something for everyone, from wide open, white sand, naturist type to the rocky/rock pool naturalist variety. We also watched Waz Spoons and his wiry, bearded friends competing in a longboard surfing contest. Bruce showed me a Rick Stein restaurant, pointed out high and low socio-economic areas (he's a doctor) and took me to a seafood restaurant in nearby Milton. We would have stayed later, but his desire to play pool was thwarted by all the tables in the local pubs being in use. I'm easily led and would have carried on drinking and fraternizing with my genial host until late afternoon, as I only had a 40 mile ride. I left at two and the rain stayed away, although it remained relatively cloudy and cool (ie the equivalent of a Scottish heatwave). Chocolate rations replenished, once again it was the highway or no way, but this section was happily quieter, with pleasing undulations, deviations, and the wind whipping me along. Kath had taken 15-year-old Gemma to a daytime party in North Nowra, where I was heading. Because there is practically no public transport here and it wasn't worth driving there and back twice, Kath stayed there all day. What a lovely Mum!

Nowra is a fair-sized, dull, non-touristy town and it was here that I
knocked on the door of a couple who weren't in. They had previously briefed me to contact them on the day in case they weren't about (didn't they have a diary?) which of course I had done. I continued to phone and leave messages, but no response was forthcoming. So, I shelled out $90 for accommodation... Pleasant Valley Motel was anything but (white bricks) although the old lady on reception certainly was - when I couldn't get the wi fi to work she lent me her own laptop! It was a bit strange to half-watch a complete stranger's photo gallery slideshow on screensaver, while also half-watching TV. During the walk into town I heard a small boy shout from a car, "Help! I'm being stabbed in the heart!" Obviously this was not the case and he was only suffering from an over-active imagination. In the noodle take-away the lady asked me twice what I had ordered and then pointed at the picture in the menu to make sure she had the right order. They still got it wrong, although I didn't discover this until back in the motel room. As I cheered myself up by gorging on Dairy Milk, a few mosquitoes gorged on me, but such is my level of pacifism I couldn't kill them (apparently human blood is too rich for them and they die anyway). Watched two typical French films, heavy on passion and craziness; as well as a teenage post-apolyptic Ozzie drama called The Tribe, which is Mad Maxesque, only with the most wooden acting I have ever seen.

Friday, 16 March 2012

Braidwood to Ulladulla

Didn't get to see Andy's wife; he said she was upstairs recuperating from an operation. Maybe she was a giant lightbulb. Halfway between Braidwood and the coast I found out what was meant when people had asked if I was "going down the mountain"; there was this exhillerating steep, twisting, downhill section that went on and on. It featured hairpin bends, escape ramps, the smell of burning rubber and a top speed of 41 mph - would have been faster had it not been for the caravan in front. The vibrations were something else and I made a mental note to check my nuts at the bottom. It was bloody humid today and I was sweating so much that even the notebook inside my bumbag was wet. The much awaited coast (hadn't seen the sea yet) was a bit disappointing, as Bateman's Bay was full to the gunnels with middle-aged tourists mooching about and they all seemed to have hideous English accents. Funny how the accents of your countrymen irk when abroad. Busy, fast road up the coast. I say on the coast, but actually inland a bit, with side roads going to each beach. I hope it's not going to be like this all the way to Cairns. Bloody cars and their stupid, ignorant drivers. Sometimes on fast roads, as a cyclist, I have this feeling of seperatedness from the rest of humanity and it seems that everyone else is in an angry rush. Just because (as someone who chooses to go from A to B as much as possible by bike) I'm in the minority (by about 1,000,000 : 1) it doesn't necessarily follow that I'm crazy, and to me it feels like all these twits in their speeding, hermetically sealed boxes are the insane ones.

Then dark clouds amassed, then there was thunder and lightning, then there was a downpour. I took refuge as best I could under a scantilly-leaved tree and donned a coat. Half an hour later and much cooler, it stopped and I continued northwards. The rain came back in waves for the remaining 15 miles and I didn't want to stop because I would get cold. The rain was so heavy at times that cars actually slowed to below 70mph and some even pulled over. It was quite enjoyable actually - once you're soaked to the skin you give up caring and even noticing that it's raining. The frogs, of course, were loving it, and were croaking even louder. Their sexual playground was enlarging and they were touting their wares for all they were worth.

It was when I reached the turn-off to Mollymook that I unzipped my bumbag (to look at the tiny printed out map of the location of tonight's couchsurfer) that I discovered that now the contents were wet with rain rather than sweat. Horror of horrors, my signature on the traveller's cheques was blurred almost out of recognition. The map itself was damaged too, but I could just about follow it to the large (regular size here) house where Kath and Brian lived with some of their children, Gemma and Nathan, two miniature poodles, cat and chickens (apparently 20% of Austraian households have poultry). A very tasty curry was soon whipped up and bite-sized tiny aubergines nestled amidst it's many ingredients. Then we all repaired to the lounge with ice cream and berries in brandy baskets to watch Ian Thorpe (of the size 17 feet) lose his comeback freestyle race in the Nationals - meaning he will not be going to the Olympics. A giant bogey sat above his lip as he was being interviewed and we all howled with laughter. Then there was football (what they call rugby) between the Tigers and the Dragons and I tried to follow it as best I could.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Canberra to Braidwood



After the rest I was in fine spirits and really enjoyed meandering along the many bike paths by the lakes and through woodland. There were cyclists, joggers and pedestrians aplenty, and the infra structure (picnic spots, maps, signs, water fountains) is fantastic. It has to be said, however, as it's a modern, planned city, Canberra is a bit squeaky clean and characterless. On to main roads heading east to Queanbeyan, but even here there were wide bike lanes - as wide as a car lane. Beyond the suburbs the road was horrendous though, without a hard shoulder a lot of the time. The King's Highway is the main road to the coast and has a single lane; which explains the number of accidents - five dead in collisions last weekend alone. Grew a bit disenchanted with scrub and gum trees, then right on cue I dropped down to a lush, green valley, fringed by rolling hills, bristling with deciduous trees, cattle and their appealing aroma. Have to keep stopping, to cool off more than anything else. One difference I've noticed in New South Wales is the increase in road kill; every few hundred yards a fresh, rotting or stripped bare carcase litters the edges of the roads. There was a turn-off called Foxs Elbow Road and on all four signs baring this name someone had very neatly drawn the missing apostrophe.

Braidwood is a nice, old mining town, which is soon to become one again so I was informed. It has a Deep South feel to it with pavements under balconies and crumbly, filigree woodwork. This country so often makes me think of the US and I wonder why it doesn't seem to have it's own identity. It's like Britain without the culture or America without the chutzpah. The wildlife are quintessentially of this land, so why do its people and places seem to be hovering in the ether? I'm searching for the soul of Australia and I'll let you know if/when I find it.

I alighted at Torpy's Eco Hotel, run by a Devonian with an obsession for solar power. He was cooking a chicken by solar-powered LED light and his solar-powered LED lightbulbs were only 5 watts and seemed very bright. He even had solar-powered LED lights underneath the peak of his cap. As a sweaty, shabbily dressed cyclist I think he took pity on me and gave me a 50% discount. It was still $70 for a frilly, florid and grandiose room with wrought iron bedsteads, walnut furniture, etcetra. Andy waxed lyrical about England in his West Country brogue and how he would rather live there, even though he's been here 15 years, and how, compared to the chaotic bureaucracy of this country, there was a reason Britain had that adjective begining with G placed before it. When I told him about my blog he asked me to promote his business and when I said I would dine at the restaurant next door, he asked me to complain to the owner about the inadequate sign pointing to his hotel down a side road. I said that I would, but when looking at the extortionate prices on the menu outside, stole away to the pub. It was pretty pricey here too, although at least it had a rustic charm and friendly atmosphere, especially the waitress and the lady who ran it, who at 31, owned two pubs and discussed her beer with passion and conviction. Drank two schooners (3/4 pint) on her recommendation, and after litres of water which never quite satisfy one's thirst, cold, gold, foaming beer certainly does the job.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Canberra

Finally, a rest day! Lucie had taken a couple of days off work and drove me to Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve, just outside the city. There are koala bears, wombats, duck-billed platypuses, wallabies, possums and echidnas. Sadly I didn't see any of those; because of recent flooding a lot of the reserve was cordoned off. I did get to see kangaroos, kookaburras and an emu. It's a delightful place, with only the flora and fauna that naturally occurs in this part of the country. In the information centre a very sad display detailed a bush fire which decimated the reserve in 2003 and only one koala, Lucky, survived. There were photos of him with a scabby nose and cream on his burnt back. It was a little surprising to see reptiles and amphibians cooped up in glass tanks, in a nature reserve, especially the huge Carpet Snake. I nearly bought a book entitled What Shat That? but instead opted for one on Australian Coleoptera. Now I will be able to identify some of the gorgeous beetles I see!

We had a picnic of quiche, honeydew melon and Tim Tams (Australia's national biscuit) and later I sampled a Chiko Roll from a fish 'n' chip shop, another Ozzie staple, which I assumed contained chicken, but it didn't appear to have any meat whatsoever, even though www.chicko.com.au assures me it does. Later we had dinner at a Thai restaurant, where I, being an unadventurous diner, chose the Green Curry, and it was certainly better than the Chiko Roll. Then, again we watched an Ozzie film, this time, The Odd Angry Shot, about the Vietnam War. Apparently soldiers were conscripted by lottery, based on the date they turned 18!

Anyway, it had been a much-needed one-and-a-half rest days for me, spent with a lovely lady (and an affectionate cat) who will hopefully be visiting me in the UK sometime soon...

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Burra to Canberra




Anitra had left for work before the kracken awoke and Ian fixed breakfast. That's the third time porridge has been offered to me and I never have it in Scotland. What an idyll (in the daylight) surrounded by 86 acres of their own personal wilderness and - right on cue - the animals I had dined on last night hopped across the lawn. Ian, who is actually in his 70s, and of Celtic descent, related the time he was in an Irish village and directed to the home of a family who shared his surname. They invited him in. He stayed for three weeks and they never established a familial connection. He also told me about their cycle tour of Europe and how they had been able to climb every single Alpine mountain, but met their steepest challenge in the last few miles, approaching a the home of a cousin in Ashstead, Surrey (for my Surrey-dwelling mother's benefit).

Ian escorted me by car back onto the sealed road and I followed a pink line drawn on to a street map ripped from a Canberra phone book. Through the city I took a bike path past the parliament and alongside a lake. Bike paths are great, except when they suddenly stop; or you take a wrong turning, which in my case is frequently. The pink line took me along suburban streets to Fisher and through a park where teenagers smoking in the shade called me a hoon, which must have been used sarcastically, because I later discovered the word means 'reckless driver'.

Here I found the home of Lucie, who I would describe as a friend, even though I haven't met her before. She contacted me via my Devil Cat website seven or eight years ago and we have corresponded about our cats (and a great many other things) ever since. More than anyone else Lucie helped me to come through the aftermath of a relationship. The comfort of strangers. It was Lucie's son, Peter, who I stayed with in Melbourne. She took me to a shopping mall where I was inducted into the hallowed pleasures of vanilla milkshakes and cheesymite scrolls (rolls made with cheese and Vegemite). Back at her place Lucie pointed out Australia's most venomous spider, the Red-back, in her garage. I continued my education by sampling a mojito on the verandah. Lucie has one fridge half-stocked with food and another, fully stocked with alcohol. Quiche and roasted veg were served up later, and with Monty the Siamese purring contentedly on my lap, we settled down to watch The Castle, a whimsical Ozzie affair about a bogan (charmingly unsophisticated) family's legal battle against an airport seeking to establish a new runway on the site of their house (their castle). It was ripper!

Monday, 12 March 2012

Jindabyne to Burra

Never left the main drag, so didn't see the town properly. This was the eighth day of continual riding and after 442 miles in the first seven, I really fancied an easy one. It was not to be. No more severe climbing, but now there was a stiff headwind to contend with - it was like my regular ride from Edinburgh to Glasgow, where the southwesterly is a dogged companion. The terrain was open and undulating, again with very little sign of civilization before or beyond Cooma, where I enjoyed a toasted Turkish chicken roll and the bins had 'Don't be a tosser' stickers. Turned left and headed towards Canberra, with the wind still on my case. I never did get to identify Mount Kosciuszko, highest point of the Snowy's - and the whole country. The traffic went past me too bloody fast and too bloody close on this, the Monaro Highway; some of the cars are towing boats and they still go at about 70. Me and my bike are starting to fall apart; one of the gear covers bounced off on a dirt track and my sunglasses have broken; both are held together with bright yellow tape. A pannier clip has broken as well and a toeclip has come apart. The business end of my bottom is giving me grief too and must look something like a baboon's on heat.
96 miles today, including 10 along more dirt (my bottom was not impressed) to the spread out community of Burra, where I arrived at the palatial home of Warmshowers hosts, Anitra and Ian at 9 pm, and as I had called for directions not long before, Ian was waiting outside with a torch. They served up kangaroo with mashed potato, beans and cranberry sauce, followed by rhubarb crumble with ice cream, accompanied by Ian's homebrew. They chortled at my choice of roads and Ian told me I'd come along the hilliest section in the country. We compared cycling notes, and they gave me pages of a street map of Canberra from a phone book and drew a pink line to indicate my route via Queanbeyan and a bike path through the city. Ian is well into his sixties and goes cycle touring with Anitra to places like the Nullaboor Desert and they always take a tent and cooking equipment. They showed me pictures of their fully laden bikes, which have twice the number of panniers of mine. In different circumstances I would have stayed up later, but at 11 my bottom and I had to make our excuses.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Khancoban to Jindabyne



What a day!

Woken by a million varieties of birds and made my way to a tiny cafe, where, like the motel, there was no wi fi. Started the day's (epic) journey and discovered a whole new part of town where there was a cafe with wi fi, so had another coffee and skyped Laura. So much for an early start... Cavalcades of bikers come along this, the upper Murray valley; I guess they like its twisty, wild terrain. The way they drool over each other's parked machines always reminds me of dogs sniffing bottoms. And then I was off. For once I was wrong to scoff at someone telling me that it was all uphill, and what followed was, without a doubt, the hardest ride I have ever undertaken. About 40 miles of (OK not quite all) nasty, uphill windiness, where I was often in my lowest gear (AND slaloming) at 3.5 mph. I'm surprised I didn't keel over with the lack of inertia. Then there would be a slightly flatter bit and I felt quite heady speeding along at 5. Had to stop and regroup twice in the first 10 miles. If this continued, dividing the total mileage by the avearge speed so far, I worked out I'd still be on the road at midnight. Stopped again and again, including at a couple of official rest areas, which are actually little more than car parks with barbecues. There was no running water, so in the end I had to fill up my bottle from a creek, which are thankfully now no longer muddy, but sparklingly clear. It was at one of these rest areas that I saw four kangaroos. They watched my approach with big black eyes and then at 50 feet they started up their funny bouncing motion into the bush. In other nature news, I tried to encourage a spider to come out of a rolled up leaf attached to his web, by prodding it. He knew I wasn't a fly however and stayed put.

Eventually I reached a sign which read 'Great Dividing Range 1,580 m' and praise be! I was at the summit. Down, down, down. Not a single house between Khancoban and Thredbo (where I planned to have lunch, but arrived at 5.45 pm) just thick forest. There's a limit to how much chocolate, dried fruit and bananas one can have until only chewy meat and stodgy starch satisfies, and that is what I had in a pub in this alpine style ski resort. Australians really know how to have a good time and even at this early hour the pub was buzzing. Some of the men here wear vests and sunglasses permanently resting above their baseball caps. I'm not sure if this is a good look, especially as I am not a snappy dresser myself, but I suspect perhaps it's not. The women dress well, neither tartily nor snootily, mostly with comfort in mind, as well as a degree of femininity. It was dark by the time Jindabyne came into view and looked like a town beside a Scottish loch, nestling amidst bare rolling hills; that is, if you ignored the buzz of the crickets and the whoop whoop birdsong. At the Jindabyne Hotel I had to make enquiries in the bottle shop (off licence) as reception was closed. When explaining I had a bike and didn't fancy carrying it upstairs some wise guy asked if it was a mountain bike, to which I said yes, and he replied, "Well then you can ride it up the stairs." Such was my fatigue I could barely carry it upstairs to a room with bare brick walls. At least they don't go in for swirly carpets and hideous paintings here, I'll say that for them. Sated myself on Cole's supermarket own brand licorice allsorts. This is the kind of fare I crave after a long day in the saddle and this variety are delicious. Did they know I was coming? The main reason for undertaking a bike tour like this is so that I can scoff double the amount of chocolate and sweets without waistline expansion.

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Albury to Khancoban

Pat had already left by the time I got up. He's a super keen cyclist and he has set himself the target of bagging the ten highest mountains in the area during a set time period, along with some other idiots. I had politely declined his invitation to join him in going up Mount Hoth. Trace took me on a tour of the town and I topped up my rations at the supermarket. Trace joined me for the first part of today's ride, which was very helpful as it was complicated. We went through a park and past an open air pool; good to see so many people outdoors using these facilities. Trace left me after 15 miles and I continued towards Lake Hume and the town of Tallangata, where I stopped for a chicken sandwich. Leaving the large lake behind, an arduous uphill section had me in a sweat and I had to keep pausing to mop my brow. Then on the downhill section that followed I got my head low and reached 42 mph. The scenery hereabouts is scrubland dotted with cattle and rolling hills topped with gum trees. I had planned to reach Corryong, but as I had no host to stay with and knew the next day's ride would be a struggle, I stuffed a second banana in my gob and rode on to the next town 16 miles down the road. Arrived in tiny Khancoban in the dark, after 8 pm, with 99 miles on the clock.

Checked into the Alpine Inn and had fish 'n' chips in the brightly lit, austere bar. This being Saturday night after horseracing in the town, it was quite busy with drunken revellers and I had to wait ages for my food. One of the barmaids kept calling me doll and the other one had a scary, predatory look about her. There was a horseracing section in there, including TV screens showing races in England. No wi fi unfortunately and the TV in ugly, threadbare room 13 only had three channels showing American drivel.

Friday, 9 March 2012

Chiltern to Albury




Wake up every day at 4 or 5 and then can't back to sleep. Knocked over a door on its side in the hall on the way to the bathroom in the dark. Audra's house is being renovated and there is hardly any electricity, so a candle is required in the bathroom - and the dogs go mental when there is the slightest sound. It has to be said the toilets are a bit smelly here and that in itself would probably put off a lot of British women from coming here. Later we had breakfast at the Honeyeater (named after the rare Regent Honeyeater bird) with the third Mick I've met so far, a cyclist friend of Audra's (who moved from Melbourne, where she lived next door to Peter, to the 1,000 strong town of Chiltern last year}. Then we took a walking tour, past palm trees, monkey puzzles, and Audra pointed out all the facilities - including a men's shed - and recent flood damage (350mm rain in one week). So glad I didn't begin my ride a week earlier. We bumped into Alan and his two little dogs, all riding a mobility scooter. He showed me the mark on his leg where another dog had bitten him. Apparently in Indigo Shire (the local area) action will only be taken when a bite requires at least four stitches.

Decided to go on to nearby Albury tonight, as the next stop of Corryong was too far for a comfortable day's riding, and wrote to Warm Showers (cycling equivalent of Couchsurfing) hosts there accordingly. The couple in question replied in the affirmative a few minutes later! As it was only a 30 mile ride I hung out at Audra's all morning and then we visited friends of hers for lunch. Dot and Pat were yet another pair of laid back, charming and guile-free Ozzies. They had quite a spread, featuring nettle soup, a French savoury tart and one of those old-fashioned glazed yellow cakes with bits of fruit in it. What a lovely town. It's on cycle tours that I imagine how different my life would have turned out if I'd moved to a place like this 21 years ago, instead of Glasgow. I ignore everyone in the street in my local area, but here, after only seven months of residing here, Audra knows most of the townsfolk.

Took my leave, rode north, into New South Wales across the muddy Murray River, through Howlong and then east to Albury. I was taking photos at one point when two 80+ gents in lycra came by, followed by a support vehicle. I'm glad I had stopped because I wouldn't have appreciated being overtaken by them. Also watched a variety of insects going about their tasks, using the magnifying glass my Dad gave me. A couple of beetles in coitus hitched a ride on the handlebars for a while. They had bright orange heads, dark green wingcases, pale orange undersides and she was double his size. I took them where they wanted to go and then despatched them onto a leaf. The whole time the male stayed on the female's back and didn't vacate her nether regions, while she groomed herself. Then there was this wood ant hole, where some workers were excavating lumps of earth and others were comically trying to fit a dead grasshopper into the hole. Continued my way, weaving between more insects in the sun-dappled hard shoulder, 25 degrees, sunny, wind from behind. What a shit day.

Trace and Pat live in a beautiful, big house with their aged golden retriever. Dined on the verandah, overlooking the swimming pool and blue mountains; spaghetti bolognese and ice cream, washed down with lashings of Tasmanian beer and delicious red wine from South Australia. They told me about a Dutch cyclist who might be staying with them soon, currently in Tasmania, and will be coming up the east coast. Jan is a doctor working for Medicine Sans Fronteirs and is riding round the world. Good for him.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Wangaratta to Chiltern

Woke early AGAIN. Watched those spiders that hang upside-down on the ceiling, which you get in England, but not where I live. 'Mares' had already gone to work when I surfaced and the other two were packing for a Womad Festival in Adelaide. Mick from York gave me an aloe vera leaf, the inside jelly of which is good for soothing sunburn. Decided not to go to Bright (no host to stay with and out of my way). Phoned my Chiltern host, a friend of Peter in Melbourne, to enquire if it was alright to come a day early, and she said she was expecting me today anyway. So, a 39 mile ride via Eldorado and Beechworth. The former is named after the goldrush of the 1850s/60s. Apparently someone found a nugget in the area worth $120,000 last month. At the general store I sampled a tub of licorice ice cream and tried not to be put off by its mottled grey hue. I don't imagine there'll be a licorice ice cream rush any time soon... Advised by my Wangaratta hosts, from here I took a road to Beechworth. They hadn't told me it would soon fizzle into a dirt track, billowing clouds of dust when a vehicle passed. Neither had they told I'd have to wade through a stream, one foot deep, with a strong current. I was worried that I was going the wrong way, but my trusty compass informed me that no, I was heading east. The sun still rises in the east here obviously and sets in the west, yet of course it traverses the northern sky, rather than our southern sky. The wind is usually from the south-west, just like ours too.

Beechworth was full of old-timers on coach tours, as it's a touristy town. That probably explains why a pint of milk costs $2.50 here. A lot of what I've seen so far reminds me of the US, especially the Mid-West. I had to go into a bloody cafe and pay bloody top dollar just to utilise their wi-fi to update this bloody blog and I hope you bloody appreciate it. I spent $7.50 on coffee and cake, then a further $3.50 when the time ran out. When it elapsed a second time I gave up. I'm a slow thinker and a slow typist. On to Chiltern, where Audra had said she would leave the door open and dinner in the oven, as she had to go out. I went to her house and knocked on the door just to make sure she wasn't in and she wasn't. The door was open and I went in. When looking at the itinerary to double-check, I realised I was at the right number, but in the wrong street. Tiptoeing out I made my getaway. Audra was just about to leave when I arrived at the correct address and I was given a quick tour. She left me alone with a chicken dinner, her three greyhounds (Miss Lucy, Charlie Girl & Zack) and an occasionally bleeping fire alarm too high up to disable. I tried Lucie's thongs. I will not be wearing them again any time soon, as the bit that goes between the toes digs in. Audra came back at nine and we had a good old chat over fruit cake, freshly ground coffee and a benedictine chaser. I volunteered to climb a ladder and take the battery out of the offending alarm, although sadly I am not equipped with the nouse for such tasks and Audra had to do it.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Mansfield to Wangaratta

Woke early. Over breakfast there was a discussion about the shorts that 'Sare' had chosen to wear to school.

Dad : "You're wearing a jacket which proves that you think it's cold. Why don't you wear dacks instead of those very thin sports shorts?"
Me : "Because she's a girl?"

The same argument was taking place at the same moment in kitchens in Guadeloupe and Galashiels.

Saw my first echidna. Dead. Gruelling 15 mile ascent from Mansfield at 1,000' to about 3,000'. I was done in as I sat in the shade, watching a fox chasing a rabbit, cruching on the Woolworth's chocolate, which tasted like crayons dipped in sugar. I wouldn't have minded so much if the hill was a simple affair of up for 15 miles and down for 15 miles; but no, this one toyed with me; up and down, up and down. I was running on empty and the tiniest incline was a struggle. Then, of course, the adreneline-rush descent, during which I passed 20 racing cyclists going up the other way. It had been horrendous for me going up on my own, dawdling, stopping for drinks and feeds; but the thought of going as fast as possible AND racing against other people at the same time... No, not for me. From Whitlands it was flat, with the wind on my tail. Sweet rapture! Passed by vineyards, orchards and pretty houses, en route to the other side of Wangaratta.

This land is thick with sex. Scotland is barren in comparison to the shenanigans of the creatures that abide here. That noise I heard before was frogs and they croak all day and night, as do the crickets, or so it seems. Horny buggers. I also noticed quite a few dubious sounding mountains and other features hereabouts : Mount Darling, Mount McKinty, Lickhole Gap... While I'm on this subject, last night Michael told me a story about the time when he was employed as a refrigeration engineerat a naturist reserve. It didn't bother him when they asked him if he wouldn't mind taking his clothes off. Hard at work he didn't pay too much attention to the jiggling flesh around him, and most of it was wrinkly, and he was in his twenties. Later, he saw a smartly-attired female and took in her beautiful figure. Then he realised he'd seen her many times before without her clothes on and hadn't thought anything of her.

Arrived at Couchsurfer Mary's house, at the end of a track in the countryside. There was no answer at the door and neither of the phone numbers she had provided yielded anyhing more than an ansaphone message. It was a good thing that she had left her mobile number in one of these messages, because it was then that I realised I'd written it down wrong. The perils and pitfalls of numerical dyslexia. The house I was standing outside was a summer house and she lived back along the track and off to the side, hidden from view. She wasn't in though and I was greeted by a message under a boot from her housemate :

"Och aye the noo! Come on in. We're shutting up chooks next door."

Chooks are chickens and the note was left by Mary's housemate, who soon arrived with her partner, on holiday from Yorkshire. They seem to get by just fine with him over there mostly and here for a few months every year. What a lovely, cosy house, which Mary had helped to build and featured interior mud walls and Mary's homespun crafts. The best thing about it was the all-round views of wilderness, with no sign of civilization in any direction, afforded by the big panes of glass. Mary soon arrived, her six foot, athletic figure revealed by a spray on gym outfit. Mary works in environmental sustainability, and like the other two - and every other person I've stayed with - she's chatty, cheerful and fun. Delicious homemade meatballs for dinner, with pasta and about a hundred different types of vegetables, all grown in their garden. Of course there was the de riggeur wildlife warnings. The only bit I can remember is how a kangaroo can rip a man down the middle with one swipe and when chased into water they have been known to hold a dog underwater until it drowns.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Yarra Glen to Mansfield




Woken at 6.30 by the kids getting up and repeatedly woken again by magpie song, which is very melodious compared to the squarking of their British counterparts. The breakfast news was full of flooding stories east of here - where I'm heading. The presenters were ridiculously jolly and upbeat, even more so than US news anchors. Of course all the females were gorgeous, skinny and tanned; whereas the men were older with gravitas. That's the first time I've seen Australian TV. And hopefully the last. When Kelly and the kids went off to work and school, Katrien, who had a day off from grape-picking because of the inclement weather, told me about the hoops she and her boyfriend had to go through to be able to extend their stay. Luckily Nico has found a sponsor who has guarranteed to give him two years work as an electrician, which aids their visa application. The only trouble is that his job is in Broome, which, at 2,500 miles is just about the furthest you could travel from Victoria! He works outside and it's so hot there that he keeps spare T shirts in a bucket of cold water, so that when the one is wearing is saturated with sweat, he dons another.

Cool drizzle to start, followed by cloudy main course and six helpings of a sunny desert to finish, on what was a long ride. I knew the first kangaroo I saw would be roadkill. Plenty of birds too, including screeching, sparkling white cockatoos or cockatiels. Wide open countryside, ranging from bucolic to wilderness, through the Land of Euphoria and the Principality of Negative thoughts. It's often the way with long, lonely cycle trips - I run the gamut of emotions. Hardly any signs of human life until the little town of Yea after 35 miles. Here I stopped for a delicious chicken roll for $8 and to fill up water bottles. Everything is so expensive here. Turned right and stayed on another main road, mostly with a shoulder, all the way to Mansfield. The wind was usually behind me. Hallelujah! I was worried about the second day of cycling, with so little training under my belt, especially as today's mileage was double yesterday's, and I'm so relieved to get it over with and it wasn't arduous anyway. Didn't have to ask for directions or even look at the map once, as there were plenty of signs and it was such a straightforward route. The rolling landscape was so pretty in the late afternoon sunlight. The cottage cheesesque clouds and the sighing wind in the trees with their shimmering silver leaves made my heart sing, and made all the expense, effort and stress of coming here worth it.

In Mansfield I stayed with Emma and Cameron, friends of tomorrow's Couchsurfer. Almost immediately Cameron asked me :

"I want to know how old you are, your marital status, what you do back home, what you're doing here and why you're doing it."

He was a policeman. Again they were all so happy and friendly, with no sides. I want to be rude about Ozzies, but there's nothing to be rude about! Their 18 year old daughter, Sarah, joined us for a sizzling steak from the barbie, along with their neighbours, Lynn and Michael. This couple were interesting to me because (I think after their children left home) they spent 10 years touring the country doing any temporary work they could lay their hands on. Apparently this is quite a common thing for people to do here. A lovely evening, but too much beer and local wine on my part...

Monday, 5 March 2012

Melbourne to Yarra Glen

Better sleep. Woken at 7 by Peter coming through the living room to get to the kitchen as he was working in a school today. Strong coffee and Vegemite on toast to kick start the day. Peter said goodbye - for the time being - as we'll reconvene at the other end of my trip. Walked back to groovy Fitzroy to pick up my bike, which only cost $20. As is typical in bike shops the world over, the mechanic was quite condescending about my attempts at making the bike roadworthy and in reference to the breaks he said at least I should be able to stop now. The staff helped me with my route out of the city and although affable, none of them smiled once. Directed to a Woolworth's supermarket, where I restocked my chocolate, sweet, shortbread (here called Scotch Fingers) and fruit & nut provisions. Amongst the plentiful confectionery goods I ignored the pink 'Musk Sticks' and the chocolate-coated licorice, and also noticed they label their battery eggs as 'caged eggs' compared to our differentiation of regular 'eggs' and 'free-range eggs'. Their terminology is better as it must make the less considerate amongst us think twice, as opposed to our preaching to the converted.

Returned to Abbotsford to reattach the panniers, which takes an exhausting 10 minutes as they're so fiddly and cumbersome, especially with all my purchases. Began my journey along the meandering, milk chocolate Yarra River bike path, 20 degrees, slight breeze, trees dappling sunshine, ideal. Really liked being on the move at last. Didn't like all the getting lost bits though, as there were so many junctions without signs. Asked a woman training a guide dog for directions and it would have been more useful to have my own guide dog. Lots of wildlife I'm happy to report, including rabbits, lizards, parrots and numerous other birds I don't know. The most common bird seems to be the magpie and I saw one attacking a bird with a plume or spike coming out of its head, and yesterday I saw cyclist with a spiked helmet to keep magpies at bay so I've heard. Stopped beside a pond from whose reeds a burbling sound was emanating, that was a cross between a frog chorus and birdsong, but of course I couldn't locate the critters who were producing it. Asked many more people for directions, including a fellow cyclist when I left the river in Eltham. He helped me, but was aghast that I was planning on riding to Yarra Glen in one day and warned that it was very hilly. Thanks a lot! It was pretty bad, although of course I made it. Only 42 miles and an average speed of 11.1! Bloody hardgoing with the weight, my lack of training and the heat suffered ascending steep hillsm when it felt as if ny head was going to explode.

Arrived at Couchsurfer Kelly's house and I wish she hadn't told me I could have come a flatter route. Kelly is delightful and so are her three children (Amy, James and Jordan), the eldest of whom proudly displayed her iPad that all the parents have to buy as they all use them at school! Nearly 10 years old, her fingers were a blur as she showed me all the apps. Her Mum says that her handwriting is terrible. James and Jordan showed off their 'Trashies', a trading game featuring a hundred tiny, hideous rubber creatures in trash cans. To me it was a big, luxurious house, dripping with gadgets and all mod cons. I think it's pretty low end by Australian standards however. It illustrates how good the standard of living when you consider Kelly is a single mother working as an administrator at a horseracing track. It was pretty full-on with the energetic kids all vying for attention and Kelly is a livewire herself, producing a constant waterfall of chat. Various friends popped in - they just walked right in - like in a seventies sitcom. Everyone was super friendly and super enthusiastic. We had spaghetti bolognese and sparkling wine with Katrien in attendance; a young German woman who is living here temporarily. Thankfully everyone went to bed early, leaving me to get a good sleep on a futon in the huge open-plan living area.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Melbourne




Not enough sleep, even on a large, comfortable couch, in a dusky living room populated with charming antique furniture and slapdash abstract art. The birdsong is a lower register than back home and there's a lot of it coming from the many trees, but I've not seen any of the actual choristers yet. Peter sings too, in his bedroom. After breakfast we toured the city by bicycle, tram and foot. I've totally changed my opinion of Melbourne - on a sunny day it is super cool in a down at heel kind of way and has all the pizzazz of any US city. We started out in uber grungy Fitzroy, with its graffiti and crackled paintwork; and where I took my bike to be looked over in case it has suffered post-box trauma and the breaks and gears definitely needed a bit tweaking. On to a Telstra store in the CBD to buy a phone, then to Vodafone, another Telstra, Target, Telstra, Target and Telstra... As I'm a bit slow on the uptake when it comes to technology, the experience was less of an education and more of an obfuscation. I got one anyway and that's all that matters. There was an fellow in Telstra ranting at an assistant about the 'shameful' service he'd received from the call centre over his contract phone. The young male assitant listened respectfully for a while and when the rant was over, said in a perfectly calm, quiet voice, "I believe we're done here," which had the desired effect of calming the guy down, who had just wanted to get his 'call centre rage' out of his system by erupting at someone face to face, and terminate the discussion.

It was pretty frustrating for me dealing with all the gobbledegook, as well as taking everything in, in a big, brash, busy city. It was a sunny Sunday afernoon, but the city was heaving with vehicles and people. We had some mushroom and tofu pies from a delicatessen down beside the Yarra and people-watched. It just shows you how you shouldn't go by first impressions, because today the populace appeared anatomically correct and sartorially complis mentis. Amongst both genders there's a fashion for short back and sides with a slightly bouffant top. Now I'm certainly in no position to criticize the follically exuberant, but it does give the wearers a gay look, although that might be what they're after. Of course, in the warm sunshine even Glasgow can look chic, but Melbourne has the advantage of a much more laid back starting point and has cafe culture down to a T. It made me think how anal and tightly-laced the Brits are, compared to the low-rider jeans, 'let it all hang out' vibe here.

While I'm on the subject of unfettered flesh... the best was yet to come. We had to get back to Fitzroy to collect Peter's bike and I'm so glad I opted to walk the last mile, because, who should pass by? Only about 100 nude cyclists! I took photos, not for perverted reasons you understand, only to document this flash mob. I think they were demonstrating about green issues rather than obscenity laws and some had warpaint and fancy dress to catch the eye - not that my eye needed any catching. I was carrying my helmet, and innuendos aside, one of them shouted at me, "Where's your bike?" and others called out, "Come and join us." En masse they looked proud to be in the raw, but a couple of stragglers who passed by later on just looked uncomfortable and if you saw them alone you'd think they had mental health issues. I admired their spunk, but I wouldn't want to borrow a bike from someone who'd ridden it bare-botomed... Later I found out it was an annual event - and I was lucky enough to witness it! Apparently they ride naked to highlight the vulnerabilty of cyclists on our roads, although I'm sure a lot of them had nothing planned and simply thought it would be a fun thing to do on a Sunday afternoon. Hopefully this link works : http://melbourne-leader.whereilive.com.au/lifestyle/story/2011-world-naked-bike-ride-rolls-through-melbourne/ Pity the poor editor of this video who had to try to be as tasteful as possible in his cropping of rude bits.

Back in the ambient gloom of Peter's living room, we had pizza and watched 3/4 of a film, not through choice, but because the DVD stopped at that point. Novaries the cat contentedly lay on my lap throughout. It's not only half her nose that she's missing. Then I made a terrible discovery. I am a total klutz when it comes to losing things. So far, not only have I nearly lost my bumbag... Now, much much worse than that... I'm shaking as I type this... I have mislaid my chocolate and sweet supplies.