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Never Never Land

Never Never Land

Jack Kerouac
“Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.”

Day 275 – 22,446km

“Just watch out for the crocs in the NT, mate. The salties are the dangerous ones here so don’t go swimming anywhere unless it says you can.”

“Mate, those road trains aren’t stopping for anyone – just give them loads of space or get the hell off the road when you see them.”

“If you’re camping in the Bush then don’t be wearing those sandals, mate, these snakes are lethal.”

“The headwinds! You really should be going the other way. Good luck.”

“Just make sure you’ve got enough water, mate. This road has seriously long stretches of f-all.”

“It might sound stupid, mate, but it’s the roos you need to watch out for…those things are stupid as hell and will bounce right into you.”

“The flies! Get yourself a head net, mate.”

Scar Tissue

Once known as “The Track”, the Stuart Highway was named after explorer John McDouall Stuart who discovered a route through Australia’s inland on several excursions in the 1850s and 1860s. It is now known as the “The Explorer’s Way” and is a popular road for travellers as well as a key logistics route for the transport of goods across the country.

In the words of one Northern Territory (NT) resident I met, “The Stuart Highway is the scar that runs the length of our country from Darwin to Adelaide; it splits the country in two.” The road runs almost 3,000km and covers lengthy spells of remote straight roads and extreme temperatures interspersed by unique towns, although I found this term questionable given it was labelled to several settlements of between 10-20 residents.

It was not my original plan to follow this route. Not because it appeared too hard or too remote, but rather it was not the usual route that people used to cycle across Australia so it never really crossed my mind. But, in the same way that my illogical detour around the northern edge of Kazakhstan appealed, heading straight down the middle of Australia piqued my interest enough that by the time the wheels touched the asphalt on my flight from Singapore to Darwin, my fate was sealed.

The Wait is Over

Australia was always the country I was cycling towards. Yes, I was excited to get to Singapore and the end of Asia. Yes, New Zealand is a further destination and the current finishing line. But when I was asked what I wanted to do after leaving the Army, the whimsical answer was, “I don’t know, cycle to Australia or something.” I’ve wanted to visit this country for a long time but just haven’t got around to it.

The extended break in Singapore was both necessary and appreciated. I wanted to get moving but equally, I knew that by delaying my flights a few days, it forced me to rest and reflect. The downside to that was I became content with being motionless, right up until the point I was boarding the plane and then those butterflies came – those butterflies that reminded me that I was embarking on something that stimulated body and mind.

I was hugely appreciative to have a few days with Liz and Derek in Darwin before setting off. They were really generous hosts who gave me the chance to stock up and prepare for my first stint into the Outback. I knew there was a 350km, three day, “bedding in period” before the next stop in Katherine. I had an idea of what to expect but, having been off the bike for a wee bit, and in a new country, albeit a much more congenial one, there are always a few unknowns.

Alas, with a fully laden bike prepped with masses of water, porridge, noodles and snacks, I cumbersomely rolled out the front gate. I took a final glance at the coast in the knowledge that the next time I see it would on the other side of the sixth largest country in the world.

The Bush and Beyond

So many warnings had come flying my way over the previous 48 hours and many more seemed to come from anyone and everyone along the way. Unlike in Kazakhstan and China, more people I knew had knowledge of Australia so freely offered their opinion and warnings. Some of these I took with a pinch of salt due to their overly cautious approach, some were hugely appreciated and insightful.

Within a few hours, those long straight roads with the heat shimmering off the tarmac in the distance was a reality. It was the reality I had long thought about and was enthused by, but with it came with a sense of disquiet. The NT can get hotter of course but that initial stint was hot, really hot, and brought with it dehydration and salt deficiency.

Opposed to the battles in winter of, ‘How long will my water last without freezing’, it now became, ‘How long will it take for freezing water to become unpleasantly warm and unsatisfying.’ Opposed to the convenience of 7-Elevens every 25km in SE Asia, there was now up to 100km between each guaranteed water stop. There was sometimes a water tankard at laybys every 50km along the Highway but it was 50:50 as to whether they were full or not – a gamble not worth taking given potentially disagreeable consequences.

I saw my first sign to Alice Springs since leaving Darwin which was an alarming 1440km. In fact, road signs would continue to be a theme of amusement, bewilderment and mental distraction across the ensuing few weeks. I saw those iconic yellow diamond signs with a black kangaroo on as well as ones warning me of road trains, UFOs, important WWII sites, upcoming roadhouses and plenty reminding travellers about the dangers of open flames and bushfires in this environment.

And then began an ongoing Outback theme, that of, “Want a beer, mate?” It started when I stayed with Mandy in Coomalie Creek, who, within a few minutes of me arriving unannounced at her Caravan Park (closed for the wet season), she offered me a place to stay and a couple of cold beers. My stay with her ended with a brilliant Anzac Day BBQ and I was pretty sold on the country already. The trend continued at a Highway Rest Area the following day when some guys heading north were intrigued enough by my trip that at 11am in 35 degrees, we were happily tucking into a refreshing Great Northern Brewing Co. beer roadside. And so it continued through the NT from 20-year-old cattle farmers, retired caravan tourers to touring band members and fishermen. “Want a beer, mate?” has been the line that has kept me amused and engaged with everyone I’ve met so far.

It does also represent a key aspect of this phase in the trip. The reason I struggled quite so much in China was an inability to communicate my sentiments and emotions in a coherent way. Of course, body language and gesticulations were enough to get by but left me feeling frustrated and impotent in what I actually wanted to convey. Here it was fun to have banter again about anything and everything, to have proper discussions about politics, music, sport, films and the weather; just simple conversation. I guess, like many things, you don’t know what you have, or what you miss, until it’s gone.

Unsolved Mysteries

I stayed with a hugely hospitable Mancunian couple, Billy and Andrea, in Katherine, before the proper adventure began. The appetiser had been devoured and it was tougher than I expected in many aspects. Leaving Katherine, however, brought about a new sense of foreboding with almost 1,200km to my major checkpoint of Alice Springs.

I was heading into the Never Never. The Never Never is the name of the vast, remote area of the Australian Outback as described in Barcroft Boake’s poem, “Where the Dead Men Lie”. Here, the gaps between settlements begin to increase, the Highway, previously lined with 50ft trees, is reduced to scrubland and the famous red dirt tracks part with the main road and head off into the seemingly endless landscape beyond.

I randomly ended up at a famous campsite next to the Thermal Springs in Mataranka with a superb live band which led to an amusing evening prior to stopping the following day at the Pink Panther Pub in Larrimah. I was fascinated to visit Larrimah after listening to the podcast ‘Lost in Larrimah’. This detailed the disappearance and subsequent (still unsolved) investigation of a member of this 12-person town, Paddy Moriarty.

One pub, one tea shop, plenty of long-running feuds, war veterans, rumoured human meat pies, a town in the middle of nowhere with all residents over the age of 70, oh and a couple of saltwater crocodiles in a zoo at the back of the pub – it is an astonishing story that mixes Agatha Christie, Midsomer Murders and Sweeney Todd. I couldn’t resist staying in this eerily silent place with Missing Person signs all around it and a sense of constant intrigue from both locals and tourists. I amused myself by thinking of the Chicken Run film quote, “I don’t want to be a pie.” Thankfully my wishes came true and I pedalled away both enlightened and unfulfilled…what did happen on the night of 16th December 2017 that led to Paddy’s disappearance?

Decision Time

The wonderful thing about beginning at Darwin and wanting to end in Sydney was that, within reason, there was almost no route plotting error I could make along the way. Follow the Highway and you’ll keep heading south. But there was a moment at a place called Threeways that provoked a decision to be made. The first option was to head east towards Cairns, the Sunshine Coast and Brisbane before ending at Sydney. The second one was to keep going south to Alice Springs, Uluru, Adelaide, The Great Ocean Road, Melbourne and then Sydney. Naturally, I took it to an Instagram poll and the results were tight, 55:45. The south won and so the Stuart Highway remained my axis of movement for the foreseeable future.

After Katherine, the amount of traffic significantly decreased. There was always enough that I felt as though if I had a serious drama, I could flag someone down in good time but not so much that it felt busy. There was plenty of time alone with just an extensive tarmac strip heading bullet straight onto the horizon flanked by that deep red Australian earth. That hazy reflective glare in the distance reminded me of the blurry heat at the grid of a Formula One race. I wouldn’t say my speed was comparable to that of Lewis Hamilton but, as one of my favourite sights in sport, the start of an F1 race, it was pleasing to let my mind wander.

As I moved south, the cloudless skies allowed me to watch my shadows slowly move from wide-reaching on my right to straight overhead and then drifting out to the roadside as the sun set in the east. Drivers on the other side of the road would acknowledge me with a range of gestures from an almost resentfully obliging raised forefinger to thumbs ups, waves and windows down, horn honking excitement – all of them gave me a boost. I was stopped a few times by cars offering to give me food and water which was reminiscent of Kazakhstan and hugely appreciated. A highlight being one of the more unique roadside gifts, a couple of pears and a carrot, providing a bit of amusement and a welcome vitamin boost.

I met a lady, Sherry, who was walking from Alice to Darwin over 40 days to complete her Stuart Highway journey, having walked Adelaide to Alice in 2017. I pedalled past countless amounts of roadkill including wallabies, cows, snakes and dingoes as well as a regular supply of 6ft high termite mounds. I happily passed monuments representing the highest point on the Stuart Highway and the Tropic of Capricorn. I battled swarms of flies the like of which I’ve never seen before and revelled in a new routine of ending the day lying on the grass with my feet up to get rid of the lactic acid. I held my breath passing through the smoke of a bush fire and resented headwinds every day but slowly made my way closer to the safety net of Alice Springs.

Road to Alice

Alice Springs is roughly equidistant between Darwin and Adelaide, representing the halfway point along the Stuart Highway. Adding in a 500km detour to see Uluru, it isn’t halfway on my trip south but remained a key checkpoint. Getting to Alice signified that this route choice was both realistic and achievable despite some of the challenges that invariably get thrown up along the way.

It is a unique environment. It is most comparable to the Kazakh Steppe yet so very different. It sometimes felt as though I was on my own personal crusade in the middle of nowhere, sat on the side of the road with bottles of water and surrounded by total silence and open spaces. I reminded myself in those calmer moments that these are the ones I need to embrace, appreciate and be wholly present in. These are the memories that will remain with me for years to come and, in the words of my favourite writer of all time, Bob Dylan, “Take care of your memories, for you cannot relive them.”

I found this an almost melancholic experience: so very grateful at where I was and the physical and personal journey I was on, yet perturbed by the fact that time does not stand still. The trip continued on to a gentle bend in the road, to another campsite and more fleeting and insightful encounters with people on their own life journey.

There is still a long way to go along this road and down this wonderful country. I’m seriously excited to see Uluru, experience the remoteness of Southern Australia and reach Adelaide. Although this is a fun place to be, in the centre of the country, there is a big old adventure awaiting the moment I leave. This is the Never Never and if there’s one thing I’m sure of, it’s that it’s going to be just as memorable as what has gone before.