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Down By The Ocean

Down by the Ocean

Albert Einstein
“Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.”

Day 301 – 25,054km

Little milestones are a way to keep my mind occupied. Often they’re insignificant ones during the day to give a little indicator of progress. At other times, it is arriving at a particular city or road, crossing a border, seeing a familiar face, reaching a certain number of days or a clocking up total kilometres.

I don’t wait for these moments with lightheaded anticipation at all because, within reason, they are an inevitability. Keep cycling day after day and you’ll reach x amount of kilometres and be away for x amount of days. Keep following a particular road and, hey presto, you’ll reach whatever is at the end of it and see what you see along the way. However, those milestones are what continually provide me with impetus. If I wasn’t stimulated by certain landscapes, cultures or people in stretches to come then I would really query the point of this extended journey.

The stint from Adelaide to Melbourne seemed to tick every one of those boxes. 300 days since leaving home, 25,000km reached, entering the state of Victoria, the Great Ocean Road, Melbourne and several trusted friends. So many things that I’ll remember in a stretch of pedalling but actually, it is the things outside those clearly identifiable factors that will also be etched into my memory.

Home but Away

Steadily damper and windier weather emerged as I was staying with Michael and Jen in Adelaide. After an almost continuous stint across the Outback of cloudless days and sunshine, I was a bit taken aback by wearing a waterproof jacket again. Leaving was, as ever, a bugger, but a necessary one as Juliet had given me a brilliant target of Melbourne on 3rd June, a day before her flight back to the UK. It was the motivation I needed to force myself away from the comfort of a wonderful family and exceptional food and instead return to life as a cycling vagabond.

Thick grey clouds and drizzle welcomed me but I was away and could now look forward instead of whinging about what might occur ahead.

I’ve been through so many changes of scenery on this trip but nowhere has remotely felt like home; nowhere has given me that reassuring sense of Britishness. The Adelaide Hills, however, did exactly that. Green fields stretched across undulating valleys which were populated by cows, sheep, horses, Shetland ponies and tractors churning up the land. It felt like I was riding my bike in the hills in Hampshire. I played (embarrassingly) British music and was feeling nostalgic and proud of my own country. I was in a gorgeous part of Australia but it felt even more special because it reminded me of where my heart really lay.

I was quickly brought back to reality as I passed through mile upon mile of vineyards, something the Adelaide Hills are famous for. Although not growing season, it gave me flashbacks of going through wine country all those months ago in the sunny south of France on my way to see Pip and Ben. And then the odd Kangaroo started bouncing across the road. Yep, this was definitely not home. Dorothy and I had succeeded in our task of getting to Oz, and it was brilliant, but it wasn’t the UK.

Kindness of Strangers

I chose to embark on this trip solo and often get asked whether I get lonely. The simple answer is no. I don’t get lonely for two key reasons.

First, nobody who embarks on a long solo venture is the sort who is uncomfortable in their own company. This isn’t self-praise but rather self-awareness. Some people are more comfortable alone, others in a crowd. Some are introvert, others extrovert. Sometimes I wish I had a friend with me but mostly, I’m happier on this sort of journey doing my own thing with the freedom to explore and make decisions as I see fit. Second, I meet people all the time. No, the relationships rarely have the depth and history as those long friendships, nor those with my family, of course, but I am rarely short of company, should I wish to seek it out.

Partly because of the language barrier, partly because of the culture, but I’ve had numerous amusing meetings with people across Australia. Through social media and strokes of serendipity, I have been put in touch with more and more people along the route which provides both an incentive to cycle towards as well as an enjoyable evening or two.

I met with Kevin and Kenny at a small crossing by the Murray River. Following a few swigs of roadside whisky in the rain, I was pedalling to Kevin’s home 10km away. It was a beautiful, almost Scottish, stone house, once stayed in by Prince Albert in the 19th century and a far cry from the messy shack he described. He shares the space with his deformed, and obese, sheep, Barbarella – named after the extremely odd 1968 Jane Fonda film of the same name. The encounter was as surreal and enlightening as it was thought-provoking.

Fundamentally, Kevin is a depressed, drug-addicted alcoholic, consciously living in a state of total filth who said to me, “I’ve reached the absolute bottom. I mean look at the state of this place, it’s embarrassing. Surely it’s only up from here.” Obviously, all this saddened me. Equally, he’s had a fascinating life including glamorous marriages, solo long distance sailing voyages, jamming Gloria with Van Morrison, flying planes and producing records. He’s also someone who stopped to help a stranger and give him a home for the night. That aspect, for me, says more about someone’s heart than anything else. I genuinely hope, if I visit again in years to come, as he’s asked me to do, that he fulfils the pledges he’s given to himself because, in my mind, he deserves it. The encounter continues to provide me with a lot of reflection.

I stayed with Stephen, a friend of Jen and Michael from Adelaide, in Robe. A beautiful house by the sea, a visit to a real pub with a hearty roast beef dinner, proper ale and fascinating conversation was an ideal way to end a day. In Mount Gambier, I stayed with Dean, the President of the local cycling club, and his daughter Kara, which was a total pleasure. His knowledge of cycling, nutrition and physiology made for a change of conversation and several things I’m also passionate about. I often crave the lycra, speed and narrow tyres of my road bike and look enviously at that those zipping along without tents and stoves in bulky panniers. I look forward to getting back on my road bike when I’m home but also acknowledge how odd that might sound given how I’m presently spending my time.

Toni and Richard hosted me in Geelong, they’re friends of Mandy who I meet in the NT. They were the most welcoming of hosts after I had a particularly gruelling day in shitty weather and steep hills. Beers, a shower, a bed, good food and the enthusiastic energy of four young children cannot help but raise morale.

Thank you to all the above for your hospitality and kindness.

Drenched Days

In terms of weather, this 1,000km stint was actually one of the more draining. There was not a day without rain and not a day when there weren’t either crosswinds ripping across the tarmac or headwinds driving straight into me. The former, although marginally preferable to the latter, still makes one permanently unrelaxed as lashing rainstorms batter my heavy load towards the verge of the road as I angle the bike to counter the gusts.

If I wasn’t staying with someone, each morning consisted of bleakly unzipping the tent, a few heavy sighs and wearily packing up a sodden tent in preparation for another wearisome day in the saddle. I can assure you, there was little machismo or cheerfulness in adversity during that morning routine!

The main issue with bad weather is not the physical process of pedalling which some people think; within reason, that takes care of itself. The troubles are in your head. It is the knowledge that, as soon as you step out of the tent until you finally get back into your sleeping bag about ten hours later, you are going to be cold, wet and uncomfortable. This is compounded when I give myself deadlines which appear unachievable at the start of the day in order to reach a checkpoint several days later.

The steep ascents serve to undermine my momentum while the quick downhills in, for example, The Great Otway National Park, despite increasing my speed, manage to freeze my body. I would cling onto my handlebars as horizontal rain drove into my squinting eye sockets and hammered into my bare legs. Puddles forced me to brace my body in preparation for a fall as another tight bend emerged unexpectedly through the thick mist. It was far from relaxing cycling.

The brighter moments, however, are where I could stop and take photos – touchscreens and damp fingers don’t combine too well which provides a unique navigational challenge but that’s a story for another time. Those brighter moments, the silver linings and rainbows, are also the ones I’ll choose to remember because, well, they justify the tougher ones and make it all seem worthwhile.

I See the Sea

Sarah Kay said, “There’s nothing more beautiful than the way the ocean refuses to stop kissing the shoreline, no matter how many times it’s sent away.”

There are some images that I look forward to and have plenty of time to think about. Mid-Europe, I was enthused about the idea of the space and isolation on the Kazakh Steppe. Mid-winter, I tended to daydream about beaches in Thailand. Mid-oppressive inland China, I thought about the freedom and cliffs of the south coast of Australia. That contrast was incentive enough to give me something worthwhile to pedal towards.

The Great Ocean Road was the image that I sought. Shipwreck coast, Port Fairy, Loch Ard Gorge, London Bridge and, of course, the 12 Apostles. They were, they are, iconic for a reason. I got that slightly giddy wave of endorphins as I rode alongside the ocean. The wind did not relent but that mattered not as the sun shimmered across the Southern Ocean and the waves continually lapped towards the shore. Coastal rides really are hard to beat! The busloads of tourists at the 12 Apostles amused me, as it always does, but I just weaved my way through on my bike to where I wanted to go much to people’s bemusement. It was worth it.

The Great Ocean Road was also the final box ticked before I could charge directly to Melbourne.

Everybody Needs Good Neighbours

As has been a theme for a while now, seeing friends on this journey really is a highlight. I’ve passed myself around, perhaps like an unwanted present but I hope not, to different people in Melbourne because of exactly that. Firstly, arriving in the centre of the city to stay with a really old mate, Juliet, was a joy before seeing Maeve, another old friend, the following evening. I’m hugely appreciative to both for letting me stay amidst their own busy schedules and nights out with pizzas, trivia quizzes and beers are the smaller “normal” bits of life that I lack on the open road. I then stayed a few nights with Stephen and his family which I’m grateful for. As much as I needed a break, poor Dorothy needed some TLC again. I’m happy to say she’s in far better spirits now!

I was informed a few months ago by my university friend, George, that my trip to Australia would not be deemed a success unless I was able to visit the set of Neighbours. Challenge accepted. As a caveat to this, Neighbours was the iconic show of my childhood. Yes, others dipped in and out, but Neighbours was always there, a reassuring constant that ran alongside all my years of education.

I got in touch with Alan Fletcher aka Dr Karl Kennedy, a true Neighbours legend, to inform him of where I had been, where I’m going and why I wanted to visit Ramsey Street. The great guy that he is meant, when we spoke again upon my arrival in Melbourne, he kindly arranged for me to visit the set, meet some of the cast, fill me in with the current storylines and give me an amusing insight into past dramas. A wonderful man to meet and a memorable afternoon spent in Erinsborough that is surely one of the highlights of the trip so far.

For now, though, it’s time to head to the MCG for a Friday night AFL game which I’m really excited about. Then it’s time to depart Melbourne, reattach myself to the coast and complete the final part of this Australian adventure towards Sydney.