Great Australian Cycle Expedition summary

Vladivostok seemed a long time ago. It was 10 years since I had cycled over the city boundary into Russia’s far eastern naval port at the end of a five-month expedition pedalling east from St. Petersburg. During those 10 years I had been working with a major tour operator in London, organising and leading cycling holidays. As jobs go, it was fantastic – travelling the world and exploring on two wheels, and helping clients experience something of the freedom I had enjoyed in Russia. There is something about travelling by bike – a combination of the independence, speed (fast or slow) and ease of meeting people – that makes it very appealing and I was happy to see the clients enjoying it as much as I did. After 10 years, though, the short trips I was leading were not enough to satisfy my wanderlust and I started thinking about heading off on another large-scale expedition.
After a stint in London and France, my Russian cycling buddy Kate Leeming had returned home to Australia and was busy putting plans together for her next trip. This one would be in more familiar territory for her, but even more epic than before: a comprehensive exploration of Australia, visiting every State and following quiet roads and desert tracks as much as possible. At 16,000 miles it would be a huge undertaking but Kate was constructing an impressive framework for the trip. It was to be an official Demonstration Activity for UNESCO’s Decade of Education for Sustainable Development, with an educational website for schools to follow. It would not be fund-raising trip (which the Russian expedition had been) but would concentrate on promoting sustainability education through media work, presentations, and simply talking to people along the way. With this official endorsement, Kate was able to approach potential sponsors and was generating a good deal of interest.
The ‘official’ side of the expedition was progressing well but Kate wanted a cycling partner. When she contacted me to see if I wanted to get involved it did not take me long to sign up. All that was left to do was persuade my girlfriend that it was okay to disappear to the other side of the world for five months in the company of another woman. Perhaps not the easiest conversation I have had but ultimately successful. Oh, and I had to resign from work as well.
Although Kate’s discussions with possible sponsors had been going well no-one had come up with any hard cash yet and I had reached the point where I had to hand in my notice at work so I would be able to fly to Australia on time. It was Kate’s time to do the persuading, to reassure me that I was not going to find myself out of a job and with no expedition to join. In the end it involved something of a leap of faith (and in fact the first payment of sponsorship money would not arrive until we were four weeks into the journey) but I agreed to go, confident that the official nature of the expedition would switch possible supporters to definites.
Having completed one continental cycling expedition with Kate I was confident that she had approached the preparations for this on in her usual methodical and professional way. On paper the route looked very adventurous. Rather than following straightforward main roads to achieve a high-mileage but quick circumnavigation of Australia – which had been done many times already – we would be following a much more interesting route taking quiet roads as much as possible and heading out along demanding four-wheel-drive desert tracks into remote regions with kangaroos and thorny devils for company – and crocodiles. It would be a tough test for us and the equipment as we dealt with long stretches of limited food and water, corrugated tracks, dust, river crossing, redbacks and roadtrains. Kate reckoned the whole trip would take nine months; I could manage five and so would be joining her for the first half of this Great Australian Cycle Expedition, heading north from Canberra, west to Darwin and then south into the Red Centre.

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When our route across Russia, completed in 1993, is drawn on a map it looks impressively long as it makes its way from the Baltic to the Pacific, crossing nine time zones and the whole continent of Asia. By contrast, the Great Australian Cycle Expedition route is a wiggly loop and manages to seem shorter possibly because Australia usually appears on a map by itself with no other countries for reference or scale. In fact, the whole circuit totalled 15,543 miles, almost twice as long as the ride across Russia, and the distance I covered was 7976 miles.
Just as in Russia the timing of the trip was very important. There, we had wanted to avoid cycling during the bone-shatteringly cold Siberian winter (although ironically with all the rivers frozen it is actually easier to travel across the landscape – you just need a good set of thermals). In Australia, while it can be searingly hot, the season we really wanted to avoid was The Wet. Australia is not the first country that comes to mind when you think of the monsoon, but this is what The Wet is. In fact, the weather systems over the country’s arid central deserts are instrumental in driving this annual weather cycle that defines much of the character of countries across Asia.
The Wet runs from around December to March and affects an area roughly north of 17 degrees. A quick look at the map will reveal huge expanses covered in waterways large and small meandering their way across extensive flat areas as they head north to the Coral Sea. When these flood their waters rapidly spread across the landscape turning the previously parched scrub and pasture into one enormous lake. In particularly bad years the extent of the flooding can be alarming. As Kate and I were cycling north to Cape York we spotted a sign in a tree 46 feet above the Wenlock River showing the water level reached in 1990 – it had been placed there by three mates in a boat!
With the flooding of the land the range of the aquatic animals grows enormously. But as the waters recede again during each southern autumn and most of the creatures follow the flow back into the channels, billabongs and swamps form in the hollows and these can trap some of the larger animals. It is not really possible to say for sure which billabongs are home to which individuals from one year to the next so it is best to proceed with caution and always assume that beneath the surface of the murky waters there lies a stealthy predator that would be more than happy to snap up a meaty cyclist for its midday meal.

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These are the saltwater crocodiles, throwbacks to a prehistoric age and confidently occupying top spot in the local food-chain. Since hunting of these impressive and fearsome reptiles was banned in 1970 crocodile numbers have increased steadily and their range has extended until they are now found from the mid-west coast around the north and down to within 140 miles of Brisbane on the east coast. Recent studies have shown just how far individual crocodiles will move between and up river systems, and as Kate and I made our way through northern Queensland and the Northern Territory we would spend six weeks in crocodile country. Throughout this time I never quite relaxed and the many creek crossings we had to deal with, and bowls of water we had to collect while camping, always left me felling jumpy and nervous. Seeing these ancient and magnificent animals lazing in their natural environment, though, was a highlight of the expedition.
The onset of The Wet, then, meant that we had to be through the northern section before December (and in fact Kate would be returning to the north of the country after I left her, so she had to take these two sections into account in the planning). We did also want to escape the excesses of the dry desert heat so we had to avoid the central section during high summer (December to February). Overlaying this information on the map of the planned route gave a start time of early May – heading into early autumn in the southern hemisphere. For much of the early section we would be passing through the Great Dividing Range, the ridge of mountains that runs all the way from Cape York south into Victoria and Tasmania. The highest peaks are in the south and on our way through New South Wales we would spend time above 1000m – high enough at this time of year to experience hard frosts and cold mornings after a night in the tent.

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It was the regular entering and leaving the mountains that tested us, rather than the altitude itself. Cleverly, our route took us through the mountains and down to the coast, then back into the mountains and down to the coast, then across the Range twice more before tackling it for a final time in the far north. By the time we reached the final stages it was not much of an obstacle, and spotting yet another sign telling us we were ‘Crossing the Great Dividing Range’ would be more of a surprise than a triumph of reaching the top of a pass we had been labouring up for an hour or more.
Down south, though, the climbs were long and steep, and there was no opportunity to relax into the trip over the first week. Day 2 saw us passing through the small and sleepy town of Taralga onto our first section of unsurfaced road and up and over into the steep-sided valley of the Abercrombie River. The climb out the other side would be a treat for the next morning following our first night under canvas.

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Despite the effort involved, the section through New South Wales and into Queensland provided a fantastic variety of scenery, some of it quite unexpected and hidden away. Travelling along the road out of Armidale, for example, there was nothing to suggest the presence of the impressive waterfalls that lay a short distance off to the side, hidden in their gullies and dropping up to 260m; the panoramic views that spread out below us from Carsons Pioneer Lookout on Thunderbolt’s Way stretched for miles ahead and a long way down to the river below; near the coast we travelled through the wetlands of Bombah Broadwater and watched dolphins surfing off the headland at Byron Bay; crossing into Queensland we rode through dense eucalyptus forest spotting koalas before emerging abruptly over the border into lush pasture and extensive horse studs.

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This was perhaps the most varied section of the trip, from the start in Canberra up to Brisbane. It is easier to describer the other very long stretches as either sheep pasture (central Queensland), desert (most of the Northern Territory and all the miles I covered in Western Australia), and scrub (the Gulf Track). But this would be doing the Australian landscape a huge disservice.
Before we set off people seemed to delight in telling Kate and me how bored we would be, slowly pushing the pedals around as we crossed mile after mile of monotonous, empty countryside. While it is true that an expedition like this is a mental test as much as a physical one, it was never boredom that we had to overcome, precisely because we were cycling. At the speed we were going – typically around 12-13mph – even what looked like a tedious stretch of spinnifex desert extending to the horizon would reveal small details and textural changes that faster travellers would miss. That was the crucial difference – all the people convinced we would die of boredom had driven through the Outback in their gap years and had seen it as an extended wasteland standing between them and the next population centre on their itinerary, to be crossed as quickly as possible. The chances are that if they were sharing the driving with friends they would have spent a fair amount of the journey snoozing in the back of their second-hand Ford Fairlane or VW camper, thus missing out on some of the world’s great wildernesses.

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While boredom was never a factor, my levels of enjoyment certainly did fluctuate. Overall, I can say that I enjoyed the trip, but there were definitely times when progress was slow and hard work and if I had been asked at those particular moments whether I was enjoying it I would have said no. Pushing a loaded bike through the deep, fine, corrugated grit of the Gunbarrel Highway far into the Outback, sweating profusely in the heat, is not my idea of fun, and Kate and I are definitely not smiling in the photos.
But these occasions were relatively rare during my five months and invariably by the end of the day, once we had pitched the tent and got dinner on the go my mood would have lifted and I would be able to consider our progress from a more rational position. The expansive and star-studded dome of the Outback sky stretching from one silent dark horizon to the other would put me in a reflective frame of mind and by looking at the map I could see the result of the day’s efforts. Kate and I would compare notes on how we were feeling. Physically, this would usually be a combination of exhausted and very fit, confident in our abilities to complete the trip despite the many miles that still lay ahead: emotionally, most of the time we were fine but there were rare occasions when our tiredness and remoteness from home and family proved too much. Even though Kate spent the whole trip in her own country she was always far from either her parents in Perth or her husband in Melbourne, and my girlfriend was around the other side of the world. One particular morning all our emotional planets aligned simultaneously as we sat outside the tent on the banks of the Finke River and we were both crying as we spoke about our predicament.

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On previous long expeditions, once I have got over the initial homesickness after a week or so I have been able to concentrate on the task at hand and enjoy it without the distraction of emotional intrusions. That was a while ago, before mobile technology shrank the world and blighted the most remote or beautiful locations with ambience-shattering ringtones and shouted half-conversations. One of the purposes of travelling in the way of this journey is to leave home and familiar things behind and put yourself in situations you would not usually find yourself in. It is important to immerse yourself in the trip as thoroughly as possible and this was easier with long stretches between picking up a letter at a post-restante address or managing a short phone call down a crackly line booked through the operator. Now with instant worldwide contact available through anything from ‘old’ new technology like emails and websites to up to date social media platforms it is possible to be away while still being in touch and as available for a chat as you would be if you were at home – time differences notwithstanding. So to an extent your expedition location is just the place you ‘happen’ to be in at the moment while still maintaining a semblance of carrying on with your regular life through chats with your friends and family, and maybe even your work.

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The temporariness of the journey is emphasised and the competing demands for your attention mean you are not as committed to the trip as your would be because there is always another parallel world on your mind. Frequent reminders of the comforts of home – relationships, food, a regular bed for the night – can affect your mood and motivation. It is just easier to apply yourself to the task of completing the trip if you can get on with it uninterrupted.
I am not against phoning home or picking up news. It is when this happens in an unstructured way that it goes from offering a bit of moral support to being distracting.
Something that might put you off visiting Australia and especially visiting its remoter parts where medical attention would be slow to reach you, is its concentration of animals that are capable of doing tremendous harm. It is something that we do not have to contend with here in the UK, unless you believe in the various stories that have appeared over the years describing brief shadowy sightings of the Beast of Bodmin/Dartmoor/Exmoor (it always seems to be based in the south-west). Wild boar have escaped from farms and established a population in the Forest of Dean and if you bumped into them it might prove a tricky situation, but other than that a farmer’s field with a bull in it is probably the most dangerous environment in this country from a wildlife encounter point of view. In Australia, things are different – very different. Alarmingly different, in fact.
As the world’s biggest island Australia has an enormous coastline marked by beautiful sandy beaches, enticing surf and coral-fringed islands. The temptation to dive in and cool off in the waves is very strong but there are plenty of reasons to stop and scan the water before plunging in. You would need very good eyesight, though, to spot one of the creatures capable of inflicting the most pain. Box jellyfish can reach 12 inches in diameter but are transparent, so the chances are you would only know you were among them once you had already been stung. By then of course it will be too late – your limbs will be burning.
Slightly smaller at around seven inches long is the beautiful blue-ringed octopus. Easier to spot and therefore to avoid, it is possible to admire this one from a safe distance and marvel at its weaponry – its venom causes extreme and rapid paralysis.
Moving away from venom, the preferred attack method of the larger reasons to approach Australia’s beaches with care relies on the more straightforward equipment of teeth coupled with brute force. Sharks – 180 different species – cruise the inshore waters all around the country. While the public perception of these supreme marine predators has improved over recent decades – and I have chosen to visit some dive sites specifically to encounter sharks – swimming on the surface as they cruise below is a rather unsettling experience and one I would rather avoid. Another fearsome set of teeth with a fine prehistoric lineage can be found in the country’s tropical north, lazily plying the waters offshore as well as creeks and waterholes. These teeth belong to the saltwater crocodile and I would definitely recommend that these are only admired from a safe distance.
If left to reach maturity, the saltwater croc can grow to twenty feet long and weigh up to one tonne. They hunt by stealth, and for such a large animal can generate an alarming turn of speed, erupting from the water to grab their unfortunate and unsuspecting prey. There are plenty of stories of humans being taken – from in the water, on the shore or even while up a tree – and if there was one creature I was genuinely scared of during the expedition this was it. Collecting water while camping has never been a chore I would associate with a feeling of real trepidation but for all of our time cycling through northern Queensland and the Top End it was my least favourite activity.

So much for aquatic dangers. On land the list is no less impressive. Snakes abound, with around 140 species of which a dozen can inflict a fatal bite on a human. In northern New South Wales we spent an evening in a local petrol station owner’s honey shed. In his house he had a large collection of pickled taipan heads – taipan venom is the third most toxic of any land snake.
Spiders seem ready to leap out at you at every opportunity, with Sydney funnel-webs and redbacks capable of inflicting a bite that is certainly extremely painful and debilitating, and which can be fatal.
There is always the chance that you might get too close to a kangaroo, too, and suffer an unpleasant disembowling. All these things are serious, but their effects are amplified when they occur far away from help and all you have in your bag is a basic first aid kit.
Fortunately it seemed we would not have to worry about avian attackers. In fact, the local birds were an interesting and sometimes amusing collection. A flock of budgerigars flashing green and yellow over the desert scrub is a beautiful sight, especially when you are more used to seeing them in small cages; the same is true for zebra finches, popular cage-birds but far more appealing skipping around the water trough of an Outback cattle station.

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Galahs, black cockatoos and parakeets called tunelessly, the rough sounds at odds with their bright feathers, and the local crows were so half-hearted when it came to calling that I dubbed them the bored crows. They would start enthusiastically, uttering a confident and slightly rough-sounding note, but then they would lose interest in the whole communication thing and just tail off. It was as if they had forgotten what it was they wanted to say, or perhaps the other crow had given up listening and had flown off. It happened all the time, so there were a lot of half-finished corvid conversations out there. Once they really got the hang of their attention spans and a commitment to converse the countryside would be a noisy place.
In the New South Wales / Queensland borders we were regaled with the electronic beeps and whistles of unseen forest birds. And then there were the kookaburras, sitting in the old gum trees. When you visit a country there are certain sites and events that you have to experience to be able to say that you have really been there. Mosquito swarms in Siberia, a game of boules and a Gauloise in France, Route 66 in the USA, stranded trawlers on the dried up bed of the shrinking Aral Sea. In Australia, nothing quite captures the essence of the country like the sound of the kookaburra’s laugh echoing through the eucalyptus groves. It comes as something of a surprise to learn that these birds are a type of kingfisher – they do not eat fish, mainly because they do not live near water. Mice, snakes, insects and other bird chicks are their usual fare.
Unexpected classifications aside, it is their call that is their stand-out feature. An old name is laughing jack-ass. I am not sure I recognised the pained strains of donkey brays but while the crescendo of the staccato laugh might not sound especially tuneful (kookaburras are not songbirds, after all) it is endearingly appealing and rolls up cork-fringed hats, shimmering heat hazes, wallabies, wombats, willy-willies, the scent of eucalyptus oil, g’days and rising inflexions, raw prawns, dills, stubbies and dunnies into one convenient aural representation of this beautiful, huge and diverse island nation.

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Kate and I were riding to promote sustainability education. One aspect of Australia that has needed addressing ever since the first European settlers started to establish their camps and push into the hinterland is the sustainability of the populations of the indigenous inhabitants. Aborigines are thought to have been living in Australia for 40,000 years. Clearly they know a thing or two about sustainability and how to live within the means of the land that supports them. With the arrival of Europeans, though, everything would change and in the time-honoured way the ‘undeveloped’ natives would suffer at the hands of the newcomers and be forced to live in ways at odds with their long-established culture. Families were broken up and children taken away to be raised by civilising white folk (a practice which, incredibly, only ended in 1970), a blind eye was turned to hunting ‘black fellas’ until 1910, and reservations were established to settle formerly nomadic tribes in permanent bases funded by government handouts. As seen in other countries where native populations have been treated similarly, the negative impacts of these policies have been incredibly damaging. Levels of alcohol and drug abuse, domestic violence and suicide climbed to levels well above the overall national average, and pervasive sense of detachment and ‘being left behind’ settled over the Aborigine nations. Academic achievement and the incidence of Aborigines reaching senior levels in business have also remained very low.
I do not think there is a quick fix to this situation but greater integration would definitely help. At the time of our cycling expedition segregation was still the favoured approach, with permissions required in order to pass through or stay in Aboriginal lands and settlements. This approach does noting to help either side meet and understand the other; it does not provide opportunities for conversations, cultural exchanges, first-hand experience of each other’s way of life and the chance to listen to personal accounts of what it is like to live as second-class citizens. Kate and I did stay in Aboriginal towns; on the whole we were welcomed, very occasionally we felt uncomfortable because of slightly hostile questions. I always felt like an outsider, and the lasting impression was of a desire among the Aborigines to carry on with their traditional life while being forced to adopt alien practices.

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