March 31, 2014 – Crocs, snakes and a lot of nothing
Alice Springs, Australia
Day 74 - Distance biked so far: (5,226 km)
The flight from Bali to Darwin was uneventful. In Bali, I found a bike shop on the way to the airport, had them put it in a box and then took a cab to catch my flight. A few hours later I arrived in Darwin. The immigration process is very strict here. I had checked off on the questionnaire that I had been in rural areas on a bicycle so I was flagged for a very detailed search. It would be pointless to deny having sporting equipment when you are pushing a large box containing a bicycle so I expected to be watched closely. I anticipated this so prior to boxing my bike I spent a few hours cleaning it and all my camping gear and shoes. The immigration officer took my bike out of the box and went through all my bags, so the cleaning I did earlier paid off. I was given the green light and got a ride into Darwin, ready to continue my adventure down under.
Darwin is at the north or Top End, as it is known here, of the Northern Territory, one of the 8 States or Territories in Australia. It is a city of about 125,000 and my first impressions were of how quiet and clean it was compared with the cities in Indonesia. I stayed there a few days to buy some supplies for camping, get a detailed map and to get a few things for my bike. As I walked around it felt strange to see fully stocked super markets with wide aisles, streets without large masses of people, no car honking and most noticeable of all, sidewalks that you can walk along with street signs letting you know what street you are on. I don’t think I would have noticed the same things if I had flown here directly from Canada but after a year in SE Asia, certain things stand out. The prices for food and accommodations also stood out in a bad way with prices for food about 4 or 5 times the cost of similar food in Thailand.
Just as I was relishing being back in a country where things operated like home, Darwin was hit with a citywide blackout. I was planning to take my bike into a shop to have them look at a few things but all the businesses, schools and offices were closed after an accident at the power station. The power went out about 2:30 am and wasn't restored until late the following afternoon. It was quite amusing to see how people react to not having power. A few people needed some perspective that they could have got knowing about the people in Tacloban who have been without electricity for 5 months.
Australia is the world’s 6th largest country with an area equal to that of the United States, if you cut off Alaska. My route will take me right down the middle, through the Central town of Alice Springs all the way to Adelaide. I will be cycling along the Stuart Highway for just over 3,000 km’s, with the halfway point being Alice Springs. On Thursday March 13th, I started the long road south.
I took a few photos as I was leaving Darwin.
The Top End is just finishing the wet season and the early miles of the route were far greener than I had anticipated. The locals told me that things will turn brown as I head south out of the tropical region and into the drier Central regions. The rivers were full of water and provided beautiful scenery on the way.
The temperature on the day I left Darwin was forecast to be a high of 36 Celsius so getting adequate water would be a priority. The first few days were not a problem as there were small towns reasonably close to Darwin but as I head further south, I will be 2 days without even a source of water. I will be carrying up to 7 or 8 large bottles, which translates to 12 liters and since 1 liter weighs 1 kg, it is a lot of extra weight. The other problem is that the water gets very warm as you bike. If there is a campground I can put water in a fridge at night but if there is no stop, I usually add lemon to the warm water to make it a little more palatable.
Early on my route I was cycling along and the temperature hit 38 degrees. At night it was so warm that I slept in a pair of shorts without a blanket. A week later, the temperature dropped to a high of 28 degrees and nights so cold that I had to sleep with a long shirt in my full sleeping bag. It was wonderful to be in the fresh air but it’s a lot harder to get up out of a warm sleeping bag to face the cold morning. The change in weather included an increase in the wind so instead of calm and hot, I had cooler air and a headwind, both difficult conditions in their own way.
I got into a daily routine and to beat the heat and/or wind, I would get up at 5:00 am, pack up my tent and head out. The early start meant seeing a lot of beautiful sunrises. Here are a few:
On a few occasions I would be up early and since I am going south, the sun would be rising on my left and the moon would be in the sky on my right.
One morning I saw a herd of wild horses running on my side. It was spectacular seeing them in full running mode and their movement in unison broke the stillness of the early morning.
I could also see other wildlife, including a reminder that when you sleep in your tent here in the outback, keep the doors zipped shut or you might end up with some unwanted company. I saw this guy on the side of the road, obviously meeting his end by a vehicle. I think about this every night when I get out of my tent to go to the bathroom or when I get up in the morning.
One day a bird of prey was circling overhead for a long time. Maybe he thought I would run out of water and drop over on the road to provide a feast for him and his friends.
|Bird of prey|
I will typically bike for a few hours after getting up and then stop to cook my breakfast. I carry gas in an orange container that fits in one of the water bottle holders. I fill it up with regular gas whenever I am in a town with a gas station. I always have oatmeal with raisins and almonds for breakfast and can cook it at a rest area if there is one around or simply cook it up on the side of the road. Here is a literal version of breakfast on the road.
|Breakfast on the road|
I then bike until lunchtime and will repeat the process of setting up my gas stove and cooking a meal. There are some rest areas along the road and I often time my breakfast, lunch or dinner to be there. I can take advantage of having a picnic table and they have water tanks where I can use the water to cook or boil to drink and fill my water bottles if I am running low. For lunch I usually have rice or couscous that you cook in water or some soup, which provides a few cups of water and some calories.
If I run into a small town I will stop at the roadhouse to get something to eat and drink and if there isn’t one, I also cook my dinner on my stove before I go to sleep. Here is a typical dinner of macaroni and red beans with lots of water.
It is a simple life and there is a real pleasure in being completely self-sufficient. I can carry my own food, water, bed and some parts to fix a mechanical problem on my bike, so can go a few days without any assistance. I prefer to find a campsite to have a shower and get something to eat that I don’t have to cook but can survive without if I have to. I also like to stay at a campsite to meet people and have conversations. If there are no campsites, I just pull off the road in the middle of nowhere, cook my dinner and go to bed.
The other advantage to a campsite is that most have swimming pools. I stayed 2 nights in Katherine to enjoy this pool.
|This is camping|
They had this warning sign on the road but I’m not sure why, there aren’t any people here walking around.
There are over 2,000 termite (white ants) species worldwide and about 90 of those live in the Northern Territory of Australia. In many areas of the Top End, the termite homes dominate the landscape. The mounds are built over a sub-terranean nest and inside are a series of tunnels that serve as ventilation for the nests. The termite mounds can be massive, many reaching about 20 feet high.
They are also used as a form of art and to make political points. I saw these all along the Stuart Highway.
One of the constants on the roads here in the Outback are the road trains. In the Northern Territory, they are limited to 3 train lengths or 55 meters and you can hear them rumbling along from a long distance. They have been very good about giving me room on the side of the road. Here is one filled with cattle and parked at a truck rest area.
The people driving along have been very hospitable. One day a car crossed the center and I thought he might have fallen asleep and was headed straight for me. He stopped, rolled down his window and gave me an ice-cold bottle of water, another in the long list of people showing incredible hospitality. I have had people stop to ensure I have everything I need, they know it is remote out here and are just checking up. I’ve also had people stop just to talk, something Australians love to do. The distances between water stops will increase south of Alice Springs but I am not worried because I know people will help out if I get into trouble. It is reassuring to know you can rely on people only too happy to help.
I passed the 5,000 km mark near the small town of Ti Tree, about 200 km north of Alice Springs.
I remember that because shortly after reaching that mini-milestone, I got my first flat tire. The next day was me second flat, also on the rear tire and I suspected something was wrong. As I changed the tire and pumped air into it, I noticed that the wheel had a lot of side-to-side movement, which is not what you want. I was only 2 days from Alice Springs so would have to get it checked, I suspect there is a problem with my rear hub.
One of my favorite places to stay was the The Pink Panther Caravan Park and zoo in Larrimah.
They had an on-site zoo where they rehabilitated injured or orphaned animals in the area. I made friends with this wallaby who was more than happy to get his ears rubbed.
I could also see some of the birds that I would see from a distance as I cycled. It was incredible to see Cockatoo’s perched on trees along the highway as they made really loud noises on my approach to warn the other birds of the potential danger of a cyclist. Now I could see them up close and personal.
And what would a zoo in the outback be without a crocodile.
There are usually a few deadly crocodile attacks every year in Australia but it’s usually with people who should no better. It is often locals who are caught swimming in areas that are known to have crocodiles. I would often cycle past rivers in the north and try to spot a croc on the riverbank but never did see one. I asked a local a few times if there were crocs around and he told me there are some in this river. I rode over the bridge and could imagine them down there but didn’t see one. I kept one eye on the road over the bridge in case he tried an attack on the flank, you can’t be too careful. I would see signs in the campground that Crocodiles can be found in any water in the Northern Territory and that was more than enough to keep me away. Male saltwater crocs can grow up to 7 meters in length and weigh over 1,000 kg. There was no way I would camp anywhere near here, lots of places for a croc to bury you under some of those branches reaching into the water.
It is very sunny and hot here and the best way to keep the sun off my face is to wear a helmet as the tip protects you. I also wear a bandana over my head and sunglasses. If I find water at a rest area I soak my bandana in water and put it back on my head. That cools me down for a few minutes.
As I headed further south the flies became a real problem. They can easily keep up with me on the bike and would really bother you as they constantly try to get into your ears, nose and mouth. The only solution was to get a fly cover and I now wear that as I bike. I can also stop and cook in relative peace. They still buzz around but they can’t land on my face so you slowly learn to ignore them.
The towns dotting the Outback are very small and will often just consist of a roadhouse, gas station, motel and caravan park where people can sleep. Here is a typical example, the town of Mataranka, population 460.
It seems that in many places in the world the small towns want to be famous for something. In Canada we have towns with the world’s biggest apple (it’s not an apple, it’s a large steel replica of an apple) or the world’s biggest lumberjack. Here, the town of Wycliffe Wells is the undisputed king of UFO sightings but thankfully they still welcome simple earthlings.
|A nice welcome|
The Central part of Australia is known as the Red Center because of the red soil. I notice the landscape getting drier, flatter and redder as I head south.
The odd mountain ridge on the side of the road adds to the feeling of being in the middle of nowhere with long roads ahead.
There is a stretch north of Alice Springs where there is no speed limit on the roads. The only thing for a car to hit would be a kangaroo, snake or the odd cyclist.
A few hundred kilometers north of Alice Springs is a place called Devil’s Marbles. The area has great cultural significance for the local aborigines with the legend being that the rocks are eggs of the Rainbow Serpent. A more scientific explanation is that the rocks are the rounded remains of a layer of granite that has eroded over millions of years. I arrived at the site completely exhausted as the wind had picked up that day and I struggled for over 9 hours on a route that should have taken less than 8 hours. I noticed a caravan with tourists so asked them if they knew of a place nearby to get water. It was only 10 km’s to the next town but I was out and getting very thirsty. As I approached the man got out of his van and started taking photos of me. He was from Switzerland and was intrigued by my travels and quickly offered me some water. I drank a 1.5 liter bottle of water in a few minutes and felt refreshed enough to look around. Here are some photos of the Devil’s Marbles.
As I headed south, there seemed to be a reduced risk of rain with the night skies covered in stars. I don’t bother putting a rain cover on my tent so the mesh is open to the skies above. On my last night before Alice Springs, I camped on the side of the road at a rest area. It was remote, about 100 km’s to the next town and I was completely alone. I lay down, shut off my headlight and stared up at millions of stars. I had been shown how to identify the Southern Cross (you can’t see it in the Northern Hemisphere) and how to determine the direction of South by looking at the stars and could do so easily on that night. It was an incredible sight. It never fails that when I look up at a night sky full of stars, I feel completely irrelevant in terms of the Universe. It is also a time I feel very lonely, not having anyone to share those experiences with.
Just north of Alice Springs I crossed the Tropic of Capricorn. The Tropic of Capricorn is an imaginary line of latitude going around the earth at approximately 23.5 degrees south of the equator. The Tropic of Cancer is the line running 23.5 degrees north of the equator. The Tropic of Capricorn is the southernmost point on Earth where the sun’s rays can be directly overhead at local noon. I am now on the same latitude as southern Brazil and northern South Africa.
I arrived in Alice Springs on Friday March 28th.
On Saturday I took my bike into the repair shop and they confirmed that I need a new rear hub. The mechanic said excessive bumping which I attribute to the potholes in Indonesia likely caused it. They are ordering a part on Monday and if all goes well I can get back on the road next Wednesday for the next 1,500 km’s of outback to Adelaide.
The same day I noticed that my computer was not charging. I asked around for a Mac repair shop and was assured by at least a half dozen people that the nearest place to get repairs done would be Adelaide. On Monday, I went to get some groceries and walked right past a store called I-Gear, right beside the main supermarket. I went in and sure enough, they carry replacement parts for Mac computers so I bought a new power chord. I can now update my journal in the days I have off here in Alice.
On Sunday I took an all day tour to Uluru and will write about that in the next update. I hope to leave Alice on Wednesday April 2nd and it will take about 15 days to cycle south to Adelaide.
As I bike I always think about the little children at the Angel House Orphanage. David told me that they expect a few more children to be admitted to the Orphanage shortly so they will have a full house of children looking for parents. If you think about where you would be in your life without your parents, you can appreciate the tireless work David and his staff do each and everyday to find homes for these abandoned children. The longer they spend away from a loving family the longer they miss out on the simple joys we take for granted, that of being a part of a family.
David set up a new website for Angel House at www.angelhousephilippines.org. Please help spread the word so these kids have a chance where no chance exists now. You can share the link on Facebook and encourage others to do the same. You can also sponsor a child and help David with the monthly operating costs or you can help to find someone willing to adopt a young boy or girl.