14 Dec Outback/Normality
In arid one degree humidity, the late spring sun beats an exhausting forty nine degrees Celsius upon the terracotta corrugated sandpit that is the Great Central Road. Not a cloud in the sky. A car hasn’t passed in hours. Skin doesn’t burn, it just turns to dust. I haven’t been through a town or collected water in two days, almost two hundred kilometres. Shade in which to take cover is rare, just waist high scrub and dry earth from tyre tracks to the horizon. The twenty litres of bore water carried from the last town is getting low, my only refreshment. To rinse the smell of another rotting corpse from my mouth, I sip from the bottle; as refreshing as sipping saline from a car radiator. Leaning down to replace the hot water bottle on Dolly’s frame, the familiar cranial flowing begins, then the dripping. Drip. Splodge… Drip. Splodge… Drip. Hands cover with blood, gripping to stop the run of another nose bleed, the taste of blood in the throat is one you don’t get used to, even daily. But spirits are high, this is normal…
Three weeks previously, on the first day of desert cycling, I’d had enough. Only sixty kilometres after leaving asphalt, my body was beat. I stopped pushing Dolly through ruts; stood in a roadside puddle of sand and braced my sweat covered self for the abrasion of the approaching torrent of dust, a road train. I am the plankton of the road food chain and the road train is the whale. But this whale stopped. “Are you having fun?” shouted a lady hanging out of the passenger window, “what?!”, “are you enjoying it?” she shouted again to which I retort with a rant about pushing my bike through four inches of sand, the weight, the heat, the corrugation… I finish my gallop through Miserable-Bikerville and get off my high horse. The driver leans over and calmly tells me that “this is a good bit, mate” before one of those pivotal, mind altering conversations ensues.
The boundaries of reality and mirage blur as the driver explains about how a few years before he had taken five months to walk across Australia, from Shark Bay to Byron Bay, across the desert tracks, pulling a trolley. He tells me of unmarked water holes and road grading works where I’ll find water supplies, his tips for bad sections of road, his humble highs and lows of a long walk in solitude. And with the thunderous roar of a hundred tonnes bouncing across corrugation, the apparition disappears. I stand. Smile. I am the winging pom. I easily overlook all that I have when I feel hardship, but even here I have a bike, not just a trolley. Although I push my own limits, limits are subjective. The reality is that in actual fact, my perceptions of normality are leading to my feelings of hardship, not the road. I’m talking to myself but it makes sense, I’m a tired man, alone in the desert and somebody has to talk sense into me. “Adjust your idea of normality. The asphalt that seems to cover the world was not there a hundred years ago, it is not normal, it is a luxury. From now on this is normal. You will walk with your bike and push it through kilometre after kilometre of hot, draining sand. You can try to cycle and you will fall. You will feel the heat and you will feel thirst. And when hard surfaces come it will be a cycling luxury and then they will go and again you will fall and you will walk. Only you have put yourself here and there is only one way you are getting out. You won’t be here again, so enjoy it.” Tyler Durdan is shouting in my ear. The Pixies Where Is My Mind plays, the world explodes and the credits roll.
For three weeks I cycle and walk this road between sparse indigenous communities, my pilgrimage to the red centre. It’s the equivalent of Lands End to John O’Groats but in the desert, on unsealed roads, in heat, passing through only four towns in which to buy supplies. It is wonderful. I wake to the sounds of kangaroos thumping away from my tent, I follow camel tracks down the road before the animals meander across the road before me, Thorny Devils and Blue Tongued Lizards bask on the hot roadside, sunsets cast the world in deep red and I sleep beside a camp fire in only a sleeping bag through the cool night beneath the incredible stars to the soundtrack of howling Dingoes. Len Beadell, who forged most tracks across the desert wrote of it: “freedom, freedom, freedom, open, room, uncomplicated” a perfect summary. Minibuses packed full of Aboriginal families stop on their way to hunt in the bush and we joke and laugh. In communities my eyes are opened to other ways of living, of tradition and belief while I am saddened by the impact of Western lifestyles and vices. Of the few cars that pass, the majority stop to speak to me, offering ice water, oranges, biscuits and donations to the charity, I even appear in an interview about nomadic travel. As I approach the end of the road, traffic in the opposite direction stops, knowing my name and story as tales of the desert cyclist precede me.
The nosebleeds dry and the smell of rotten camel fades and I continue to sip saline and push Dolly for the last few days of the desert as Kata Tjuta begins to loom on the horizon like a crowd of balding heads. The love/hate relationship with the Great Central Road ends at the road into the Uluru National Park and as I kiss the welcome asphalt I bid a fond farewell to the dust. Half my equipment has been destroyed by corrugation, a tyre shredded on rock and it will take weeks for my nose to heal, but the pilgrimage along the desert roads of Australia to the spiritual heart of Uluru will remain a highlight of this journey. Time disappears in Uluru, a spiritual wonder that I walk around in awe of the beauty in nature and Aboriginal belief. A stay in Yulara offers a rest, beers and games of Buckhunter in the company of new friends where new ideas are hatched and routes plotted. Eyes and mind opened, the future looks exciting from the saddle as I begin the long ride down the Stuart Highway to Adelaide.