Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Outback and South Australia

April 24, 2014 – The Outback and South Australia            
Adelaide, Australia
Day 100 - Distance biked so far: (6,862 km)
The delay in Alice Springs gave me an opportunity to take a tour of Uluru (also known by the English name of Ayer’s Rock), a UNESCO Heritage Site about 450 km from the City. I was planning to go there alone on my bike but if I had, I would have just seen a large rock without any explanation as to why it is such a sacred site for the native Aborigine people. I went on a tour bus that left Alice at 6:30 am with a group of 12 people. On the 5-hour drive, the tour guide described what Uluru meant to the local indigenous groups and it was similar in nature to the mythology stories you would hear about the ancient Greeks. The various mythological events were used to explain the creation and existence of the rock and of the various markings still present.
Uluru is one of the world’s most recognized landmarks.  It is a sandstone formation that stands 348 meters high with over 65% of the rock lying beneath the ground. It stands out amongst the flat barren land in the surrounding area. There is a fair amount of vegetation at the base of Uluru and when you walk up close, the walls go straight up.
Wall of Uluru
As we walked around, you can see cave like structures that would have been used by the Aborigines as a place of shelter for cooking and/or sleeping.

The rock is seen best at dawn or dusk as the sunlight reflection makes it appear to change colours. Here is a picture of Uluru at dusk.

Shadows on Uluru
I had a few days in Alice Springs while I waited for my bike to be repaired and really enjoyed the small and quiet town after a few weeks of one building villages. Alice has a population of about 30,000 and has changed into a multi-cultural city, slowly losing it’s image of a wild town in the outback. It has morphed into a city with good restaurants and cafes to cater to the growing tourism industry. Here is a picture of the main town walkway full of art shops, restaurants and cafes.

Downtown Alice
I hiked up to a small hill on the edge of town to get this photo of the City.

A town called Alice
I stayed at the Central Youth Hostel and enjoyed sleeping in a bed, shopping in a supermarket and walking around quiet streets. After receiving word that my bike was repaired I headed off back into the Outback. I still had a long way through the desert to get to Adelaide.

Still a long way to go
As I cycle south I cross a lot of bridges with the names of rivers. The main river in Alice is the Todd River and like all of them around here, they don’t have any water. They will sometimes fill up after heavy rains but most of the time; the water is a long way underground. There are often trees on the side of the riverbeds, meaning there is water below that the roots are tapping into. To the observer however, it just looks like rivers of sand.

River in the desert
In the Outback, I often find a camping place on the side of the road to pitch my tent, particularly if I am between towns. The towns out here are not really that big, consisting of a roadhouse where they have a restaurant and bar, a gas station, and a caravan park and motel. At one caravan park I was talking with the owners, a couple in their mid-50’s, and they were asking a lot of questions about my bicycle trip. They asked me where I usually slept and I mentioned that if I were in a town I would stay at a caravan park like this to get a shower and some supplies. If there were no town I would just sleep off the road and out of sight. At one point the lady asked me if I had heard about a young man, his name now escapes me. I said no and she proceeded to tell me about how he was a tourist a number of years ago and was murdered while in the Outback. I am not sure why they decided to mention that to me knowing I am heading out to go into the remote areas and that this incident happened years earlier. I told them if you go on a bicycle you really have no choice but to sleep out in the open, as you can’t always get to a town. They told me that I should take a bus to the next town, just to be safe.
That discussion had me again thinking about fear and the impact it has on how people live. I am often asked if I get scared biking on my own in the middle of nowhere. Since this is a very common question I’ve started turning it around and asking people what they would be afraid of if they were biking across their country. Most people have responded by saying something vague about some mysterious person who would kill them at night. It’s never specific as to how they do it or why but more of a general fear. They can’t really articulate it but is something real to them. Some people will say they have a fear of snakes or spiders and that if you were bitten, there would be no one around to help. I had a few people say they would not be comfortable each day not knowing where and when they would eat and where they would sleep at night. The odd thing is that no one has ever mentioned the one thing that actually presents the biggest risk on a bicycle (other than getting eaten by a crocodile which is my # 1) and that is getting hit by a car. The odds of a complete stranger approaching me while I sleep in a tent and murdering me are very low as compared with the odds of getting hit by a car. Despite the risks being much higher, people will remember the one murder that occurred in the last 30 years but have no recollection of the approximately 50 cyclists killed each year on the roads in Australia. It is the sensational accidents that create fear, not the actual odds of them happening. If the couple mentioned had talked about the risk of getting hit by a road train or car, it would at least make some sense but to draw on a single incident from years ago seemed strange.
Another night I was in a roadhouse eating a snack and the television was tuned to a show called Current Affair. It was the typical television program that focuses on sensational crimes; every country seems to have these shows. The story was about a man who was taking out his garbage one night when his wife and her sister shot him in cold blood. It was re-enacted and shown over and over in the commercials leading up to the show to draw viewers and then multiple times during the half-hour segment. The message was unmistakable, crime is everywhere and you can’t trust anyone. I remember going to bed that night thinking about that shooting and for the first time on my trip, actually thought about someone shooting me while I am sleeping. It was ridiculous but I realized the power of the media and the impact that news has on our thoughts and then how are thoughts take over as if they events are real. No one was shooting at me but I thought about the images I had seen and that caused fear. People often shield children away from shows like that but adults watch it all the time and I think the cumulative impact on adults after years of media influence is every bit as damaging as that caused to children. The images in the media, on television or the newspapers, create a fear in us that is unrealistic but that often prevents us from doing things we might enjoy. I’ve seen people cancel trips because the U.S State Department issues travel warnings in places like Thailand or the Philippines but they don’t report warnings for the U.S that are far more dangerous. It’s always the foreign places that are more dangerous. I had no access to television, radio or newspapers for almost 3 weeks and miraculously, and no more thoughts about getting shot. I did still think of crocodiles though.
As I headed south the scenery changed constantly. It would be stark and bleak one minute but colorful and alive the next. There is a lot of life out here but you would miss it driving in a car or bus. I can hear birds singing, the wind howling and the road trains rumbling from behind. The Outback has a large sky when there is nothing to block the views.

Blue skies
After about 1,700 km in the Northern Territory, I crossed into the State of South Australia, the driest State on the driest inhabited continent on earth. Antarctica is drier but no one lives there on a permanent basis. I was bicycling along during a lightning storm, a little concerned because I was the highest object around and no shelter in sight. There was also loud thunder that broke the normal silence. Out here you can see rain clouds coming from a long way but since there is nowhere to hide, you can’t get out of the way even if it comes your way. You do get lots of time to put on a raincoat.

Storm clouds
South Australia still had long stretches where there was little to focus on but there were always subtle changes in the vegetation and colours. Sometimes you would see a lot of red soil with little vegetation and at other times the greenery would come through, proving that the wet season rains had fallen.

Desert colours
Green desert
I crossed the 6,000 km mark, a long way from Bangkok.

6,000 km mark
One day I was biking south and the storm clouds were closing in. I knew a town was close and was racing to get there before the skies opened up. I snuck into a campground and set up my tent just in time. The day had been very difficult with a strong headwind and despite only doing 80 km’s, it had taken me over 7 hours, a very slow pace. I had trouble setting up my tent in the wind and just hoped for the storm to blow over.
I was in the town of Coober Pedy, the opal capital of the world. As you come into the city, there are large mounds of dirt surrounding the countryside. These piles are the dirt removed from the earth to search for opal.

Opal mounds
The sign at the entrance to the town shows what mining equipment is used to dig the holes.

Mine digger
Other than the opal mines, the city is famous for having many of the homes and businesses built underground. The reason for the underground buildings is for the locals to escape the summer heat that often reaches 50 C in the summer. The structures built below the surface do not need air-conditioning as they keep a moderate year round temperature. I toured one of the underground opal mines that also showed an example of a house that is built below the surface. It would be like living in a cave and the temperature was a comfortable 18 C.

Underground home
I toured the opal mine in the morning and then went to the supermarket to get some food as I was facing a stretch of 250 km without any supplies until the next town. I headed out on the highway and was again met with a very fierce headwind. I was having trouble moving forward and the thought of facing that for 8 hours was deflating. I looked over my shoulder and saw some really dark clouds heading my way and I thought we were in for a storm. I turned my bike around and went to a hotel/campground to check in for camping. I was in the lobby when lightning struck and the skies opened up. The rain continued all day as I waited to be able to go out and set up my tent. Late in the afternoon there was a brief pause in the rain so I managed to get it set up. It started raining again so I put on a jacket and went out to find some food. When I was done I went back to the campground and noticed a lot of water accumulating around me and thought if the rain continued my tent would be underwater in the morning. I looked around and found a small gap near a water tank and moved my tent. It was cold, wet and pouring rain but I managed to find some respite and crawled into my tent. Everything was soaked with water on the floor so I cleaned up as well as I could, changed into damp clothes, climbed into a damp sleeping bag and listened to the wind whip my tent. I just hoped that my entire tent wouldn’t be blown away. Here is the small area I managed to place my tent to keep out of the rising water.

Flooded out
Here are the early stages of the flooding on the roads in Coober Pedy.

Coober Pedy is one of the driest areas in the driest state of the driest continent, and I was in a flood. The city received a full year of rain in less than 2 days, something the locals will be talking about for years. Not many people have been so cold and wet in the deserts of Australia.
The next morning it had cleared so I headed south. I got on the main road and was delighted to see that the wind had shifted to a strong tailwind. I was cruising along and happily thought I might make the 250 km to the next town that day but that unrealistic optimism soon disappeared. About an hour later I went from biking along with minimal effort at 25 km per hour to struggling at 10 km per hour. The wind shifted and I would be facing another strong wind all day. The idea of reaching the next town in one day quickly disappeared and I ended up taking 3 days. I now had to survive on my food and water for an extra day but thankfully the weather was cool so I didn’t need as much to drink. If the temperature had stayed up in the 40’s, it would not have been possible for me to get there with the 8 large bottles I was carrying. I have never had 3 such difficult days in succession and it took everything I had to not throw my bike under a road train and hitch a ride. It’s one thing to have a hard day but to get up the next morning knowing the wind will blow against you for the next 8 hours is hard to face. To do it a third day was incredibly difficult. I just put my head down and turned the pedals repeating the refrain that things will get better.
 I continued south and after a few days of wild camping found a campsite with a shower. I did my normal shower/laundry at the same time and rigged up a clothesline to dry my clothes. It is really hard to keep the red dirt off your bike, tent and clothes.

Laundry day
One day I caught a glimpse of a small lake, the first large body of water I have seen since Darwin. It is Lake Hart, one of many lakes in South Australia. At first I thought it was a mirage but I walked down and actually proved it did exist.

Lake Hart
Shortly after that reprieve, the scenery became all too familiar again, lots of nothing.

Nothing to see here
I will really miss these remote camping sites in the middle of nowhere.

Remote desert
The nights are getting cold with temperatures dipping down to about 2 C. It makes getting out of a warm sleeping bag really hard, particularly when the wind is blowing in the wrong direction.

Cold nights
It seems that I have had a year of weather in the last month. In the top end the daytime temperature hit 43 C and I feared running out of water. There were severe lightning and thunderstorms as I biked along with nowhere to hide. The wind has either been at my side or front with a grand total of a 1-hour tailwind. I’ve had heavy rain, clear blue skies, star filled nights and mornings so cold that I had to wear a full set of clothes and a hat to keep warm. I’ve seen wild horses, kangaroos, wallabies and cockatoos and a number of dead animals, victims of the road trains, including a camel, foxes and a large python snake. The scenery has been both barren and incredibly colorful, often within a few kilometers. I’ve met countless characters in the roadhouses and had literally millions of people wave to me as they go by in the car. I’ve had dozens of people stop their cars to offer me water or food and many stop to ask if there is anything they can get me in the town ahead. A few offered a bed in their caravans, roadhouse owners offered a free meal or drink. I’ve had an overwhelming feeling loneliness and then realized that despite the remoteness and the constant sense that you are in this all by yourself, you are never really alone, even in the Australian outback. The outpouring of support, hospitality and friendliness from the locals and tourists alike is really impossible to describe. I refuse to fall for the sensational stories that try to get people to live in fear and that people are out to get you because my first hand experience tells me the exact opposite. My bet is that the people, who are telling you those messages of fear, have never experienced the world as it really exists, but are only passing along stories from others.
I had mixed feelings as I approached the town of Port Augusta. Despite still having 500 km to go to get to Adelaide, it is the unofficial end of the outback so towns would be more frequent. My feelings were mixed because the outback came to an end and I would miss the peace and quiet, particularly at night and the early mornings. I wonder if I will ever again be lying down at night, seeing millions of stars and not having another living person within 100 km’s. On the other hand, I no longer have to carry 10 kg of water or food for 3 days so my bike is a lighter. Here is my first view of civilization after a month in the outback.

Port Augusta
I left Port Augusta the next day and things changed dramatically. Instead of the usual one or two cars passing every hour, there were trucks, buses and cars coming every few minutes. It has been a month of change. Not long ago I was in constant traffic in Indonesia and now I was feeling crowded when a few cars passed within 20 minutes. I decided that after 2,500 km’s on the one and only road down through the outback, that it was time to get off and find quieter roads. I turned off the highway and headed towards the wine country of South Australia. I headed a little east and was soon heading up into the hills.

Green hills
The road I took was quiet and climbed up into beautiful forests, a remarkable change in a few short hours since leaving the main road.

Back roads
At one point a Kangaroo was running beside me but couldn’t get away because of a fence. He was running on my left side and then suddenly turned right and ran across the road in front of me. I just managed to grab my camera as he made his escape.

Kangaroo sighting
I was heading into the Clare Valley, famous for Riesling wine, gorgeous countryside and rolling hills.

Winery in South Australia
The cycling was incredible with small towns appearing regularly. I stopped for a night in Tarlee. They did not have a campground and it was getting dark so I set up on the edge of a playground under a small shed. It was Easter Sunday the next day so I figured I would have a peaceful night.

Out of sight
In another town I found a bike path, very common in wine communities around the world. I had a 25 km path with a canopy of gum trees overreaching the small bike lane.

Gum trees
I stopped at one spot to allow a few cockatoos to finish their lunch. I wished them a Happy Easter as I patiently waited for them to eat.

Cockatoo on my path
I crossed some hills and was soon in the world famous Barossa Valley. With hot, dry summers and cool, moderate winters; the Barossa is one of the world’s great wine regions. They also had a good wet season, as many of the hills were very green. The sheep were watching with a wary eye and if one started running, the entire flock would speed off despite my assurances that I meant them no harm. That must be where the term “herd mentality” comes from. One would start running and others would do the same despite having no idea what they were running from as they didn’t even see me.

Barossa Valley
It is a small valley, only 25 km’s long but produces 21% of Australia’s wine. There are over 80 wineries in the small valley and a few are very well known. Here is one that all wine drinkers will recognize.

I stayed a day in the small town of Tanunda, the Barossa Valley’s main tourist town. It was the Easter Holiday, a 4-day weekend here, and the caravan parks were packed but I had no choice, they do not allow camping in the wineries. It’s funny that all the wine regions in the world seem to cater to the same types. The people who come to wine country like bed and breakfasts, wine tours, bike paths to get from one winery to the other, bakeries, cafe’s and of course chocolate shops. No wonder I love cycling in these areas, they have everything you really need in life.
I am now in Adelaide and will stay a few days before continuing south down to the Great Ocean Road and then to Melbourne. It promises to be a spectacular ride.
The Angel House Orphanage had a very busy April with the highlight being that a couple from Switzerland are now the proud parents of one of the Angels of Angel House. A successful adoption is an emotional experience for everyone with the parents going to the Philippines to meet their new son, giving an abandoned boy the chance to have a promising life that started out with such little hope. It is also emotional for David and his staff who raised the boy from birth and now have to say good-bye. If you think about how that boy’s life has changed, it reinforces the incredible work being done at Angel House. They really deserve to be supported so they can continue with this life changing work. Three lives have been changed forever with that adoption. Congratulations to David and his staff for the outpouring of love and attention they provided to the boy doing those formative years and also a big congratulations to the new parents who go back to Switzerland with a new baby to love and support. David told me that another adoption is close to conclusion and another set of parents are on the way to start a new life with another boy. What a month for Angel House.
They also had 4 more additions so the hard and never ending work continues. I will give an example of the kind of work Angel House does in addition to trying to find adoptive parents. This story that David wrote and can be found on the Angel House website.
…”Wearing an oversize t-shirt and grubby shorts, the nine year old boy keeps his two year old brother amused, playing games and giving him some biscuits and a baby bottle filled with water, while his twelve year old sister speaks on the cell-phone with their imprisoned mother.
The two year old eyes the adults in the room warily as the government Social Worker prepares her report on the computer, unsure why he is sitting in another office full of strangers. A few days earlier he had been taken from the familiar surroundings of his family home to become locked behind bars with his mother in jail, both parents arrested for car theft. The mother then called the older brother and sister to come and bring the two year old home, but of course the authorities refused to hand the child over and Social Services became involved in the case.
The Director and Social Worker from Angel House arrive at Social Services and watch the interaction of the siblings, impressed by the obvious love they have for each other, the older children understanding that they have to take care of their baby brother. The nine year old gives us information about his brother, what he likes to eat, his health and behavior, while we wait for the report to be completed. We try to interact with the toddler, but he clings to his brother throughout the afternoon, so we carefully explain to the older brother what is going to happen and how Angel House will take care of his younger brother until the family’s problems are somehow resolved.
After one hour the paperwork is done and we slowly move to the car park with the three children, aware that being separated from his siblings will be another traumatic experience for the young child. He screams as we load him into the car and the older brother is also visibly upset, but he shows maturity beyond his young age. Not attending school, the nine year old earns a small amount working in a billiard hall while his older sister attends elementary school. They will take care of each other while their parents are in custody, the criminal justice system moving slowly and it can take months or even years for a case to finally reach the courts.
Thankfully the toddler falls asleep as we drive back to Angel House, but he will cry for several more days until he feels safe and secure in his new environment, another innocent child affected by events beyond his control.
Once a month we would take the little boy to visit his parents in jail, in an effort to maintain a close bond with the family. After several months the case against them was dropped and they were released from jail and successfully re-united with their family…”
Angel House provides care for children and it is often temporary until the family situation improves. An adoption is the last resort. Donations to Angel House provide food, healthcare and the operating costs required to care for the 14 children currently under care, the 4 full time care workers and a social worker. It is a big job and David relies solely on private donations to survive, he does not get any government funding.
If you are interesting in helping this work, please go visit the website to read about the work being done. The site shows different ways you can donate or sponsor a child.

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