Riding With Stupid

Yoke north Australia’s summer temperatures of 40-plus-degrees Celsius with its debilitating humidity and you’ve got the two best reasons to do nothing stupid. So why I decided to ride my bicycle 330 kilometres from Digger’s Rest Station to Purnululu National Park, and 330 back, is all conjecture.

But I do know why I started cycling around Australia in the first place – to travel slow and simplify my life. The previous 5,000-kilometres had done just that, but in weather I wore well. 

Up here at the top of Western Australia in November, there’s a season they call the Build Up. It’s where the gods experiment with heat.

 When I left Digger’s Rest Station, I peddled into a wind so hot it was like riding into fire. Literally. I could feel it peeling the skin off my face. The humidity drip-fed sweat into my eyes and plastered my red long-sleeve shirt to my body. Within an hour, I marvelled at my stupidity.

I drank like a thirsty fish while peddling down a highway that dissolved into a watery mirage. Six hours and 90 kilometres later, I collapsed on what felt like the most comfortable air mattress on the planet. 

I ate my heated dinner rations of 250-grams of rice and a  tin of sardines from a dented billy. I could smell the desert while lying in my tent at night. It smelled as old as the dust of the bones of creation. Between utter silence, I heard howling dingos, the soprano chimes of butcher birds, and smiled myself to sleep.

My fourth day revealed the ultimate challenge of not just this sojourn, but my entire Australian rideabout; 46-degrees Celsius, infinite humidity, along a 65-kilometre four-wheel-drive track made of muddy water crossing, chain-eating sand, rim-cracking rocks, and butt-jarring corrugations. It felt like riding over a serrated baking tray.

But allow me to point out that there are two types of people who cycle long distances – cyclists on tour, and tourists on cycles. I am the latter. And this was the only time I ever envied those travelling on comfy seats in air-conditioned vehicles, music playing, cold drinks at hand. 

So the air-conditioned Purnululu Visitor Centre, at the 51-kilometre mark, became an obsession. I prayed to see a building as I summited every hill, rounded every corner. Eventually, I wobbled up its wooden steps. Josie the  receptionist smiled and said, “You look a bit hot, mate.”

The outback’s midday glare succumbed to the evening’s pastel greens and browns as I arrived, relieved that body and bike were intact, at the Walardi Campsite. I’d cycled the 65 kilometres in eight and a half months. Whoops, I mean hours.

I would go on to ride another 7,000 outback kilometres but, profiting from hindsight, I tackled the return 65-kilometre journey over two days. And I never rode with stupid again.


Gladies In My Kitchen Window (for ANZAC Day)

Never thought I’d see the day when those blooms
that from Belgium came in pockets of Pop
after apocalyptic Passchendaele doom.
“To your death” ordered British nincompoops.

He defied them, and with those hands he took
the seeds of life from war-death’s useless worth
and packed them well, like leaves of a book.
He planted question marks in innocent earth

that sang all summer in quiet Normanby.
Choirs of colours in row upon row,
part all of my grandfather’s family;
me, these gladies in my kitchen window.

(Written at my last address in New Zealand, 2010)