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The Red Centre

The Red Centre

Mark Twain
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sails.”

Day 290 – 24,051km

Continual warnings about the remoteness of South Australia brought about a sense of intrigue and trepidation as I departed Alice Springs. Although Alice is halfway on the Stuart Highway, throw in a trip to Uluru and I still had over 2,000km to go until my main target of Adelaide was realised.

Continually battered by headwinds since Darwin, I hoped for a change but alas, a high-pressure system meant more strong winds and nippy evening temperatures. The bike was uncomfortably heavy once again loaded full of porridge, noodles, bread, water and a suitably diverse array of condiments.

Within 100km of leaving, I bumped into Nino, a Swiss cyclist, heading in the opposite direction. With neither of us feeling a great necessity to rush, we chatted roadside for a few hours comparing our journeys, motivations, ambitions and perspectives on the world. There is a welcome relatability I now have to fellow cycle tourers, wherever they’re from and wherever I encounter them. However, with the midday sun beating down, in the middle of Australia and surrounded by flies, that unspoken mutual understanding was wholly evident and appreciated.

Too Good to Miss

As a general trend, I try to avoid overly touristy places. Being quite frugal with my expenditure to maximise potential time on the bike, the idea of paying a premium amongst the throws of other tourists doesn’t much appeal. But, and it’s a big but, there are some things in our wonderful planet that are touristy and deservedly so.

Over the course of this trip, I have taken a few detours, some bigger than others, for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it is a particular road, a type of landscape or culture I want to experience and feel a bike is the most authentic way of doing so. And so, for the first time, I took a right and ventured off the Stuart Highway having followed it for over 1,800km. I was heading towards Uluru and buzzing about the prospect.

Something struck me that evening. I had spent over nine months heading, within reason, south or east. I haven’t needed to go north or west on my route to Australia from London. Instead of my shadows swinging out to my left as they had been thus far on the Stuart Highway, here I was with sunglasses on and cycling into the sunset at 5pm.

Sensing it was a moment worth savouring, I hauled my bike onto a mound through the soft red sand; a little all body workout to end a 180km day. It was worth the effort. With extensive blue skies, a deep orange glow from a fading sun and a darkened foreground, there was one instantly recognisable shape on the horizon.

With all the iconic peaks I have had the pleasure of seeing, that first sighting is something that never leaves. That very first glimpse of Everest, the Matterhorn or Kilimanjaro will always remain. They rarely provide the best photo given the obvious distance but they deliver a memory that won’t fade. With that sunset, Uluru was no different and I felt a genuine sense of gratitude and emotion. I can’t explain why exactly, perhaps it was the music I was continually playing, but that road to Uluru just felt different. It felt spiritual as though there was a mystical power that ebbed from the famous rock.

Larger and larger the monolith appeared as I pedalled closer. I paid my $25 National Park entrance fee and still it remained 17km away. A few turns in the road and disregarding the No Stopping sign – it seemed more relevant to cars anyway – I hid my bike between some trees and jogged into the open to view it front on.

It really is something else up close. With colours of the earth around it, that prominent glowing surface and a cloudless sky, it truly exceeded my lofty expectations. Rising 348m from the surrounding land (863m above sea level), the famous sandstone monolith is 3.6km long and 1.9km wide. This really was the Red Centre.

A Gentleman Criminal

I’ve written a separate piece on climbing Uluru. The link is here. It is a contentious subject so I felt it warranted its own post.

Desert Life

The five days spent going to and from Uluru were totally worth it. Returning to the Stuart Highway, however, was like seeing an old friend again. I knew where I was on that road, where the sun would rise, what the surface was like and my routine along the way. As it has been since I began, momentum is an important ingredient for me as I work towards a particular goal. I cycle quite hard during the day and don’t rest much unless there is a specific person/place I want to visit. There was still an enormous distance between where I was and where I was going but at least I was heading in the right direction.

In Le Petite Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupery said: “I’ve always loved the desert…you see nothing, you hear nothing. And yet something shines, something sings in that silence.”

South Australia was different to the Northern Territory and again to the Red Centre. In fact, it was different to anywhere I had been. Potentially a parallel could be drawn with the Kazakh Steppe with miles and miles of nothingness, a blanket of empty space that was both delusional and mesmerising. Hundreds of kms between settlements, and even then, the “town” you so anticipate turns out to be populated by 30 people and includes only a petrol station and a roadhouse. In between, just land. The red earth turned to brown and even the occasional tree sprouting up, providing a rare shelter from the shade, was likely confused by its own presence. With an extended drought across Australia, water was a constant concern and I was loading poor Dorothy with up to 15ltrs when I got the chance to cover these huge gaps.

But desert life brought about a much appreciated and simple routine. I woke at the rising of the sun, rode my bicycle, and settled into my tent as the orange glow of sunset faded into darkness.

In between, a vaguely predictable pattern transpired. Every few hundred kms I would get phone reception but otherwise, that could remain on airplane mode with no concern about notifications from WhatsApp groups or Instagram.

I had time and space to think about anything, everything and anyone. My odometer, once a hugely valued gauge of progress, broke months ago. I used my phone for the clock but mainly just rode according to the sun and how I felt. I didn’t care about kph or average speed, it made no difference really to my intended goal of heading south.

I listened to music, podcasts and audiobooks. My mind would drift off into the vastness of the landscape but be drawn back to reality by the rancid stench of roadkill, the immediacy of passing cars, burnt out vehicles on the side of the road or soaring eagles. I had emus and kangaroos surprise me by wandering madly across the road. I met an enormous amount of fellow travellers from youthful Europeans in their weathered campervans to truck drivers, animal conservationists, a coach of international students, cattle ranchers and wind power engineers.

“How do you take your coffee?” Barely had I stopped but, not for the first time, was being offered coffee and biscuits from a lovely couple in their new age caravan. This is the Outback and people look out for one another. It’s a huge country but that road ensured I encountered some people more than once. Several times I was stopped and given water or sandwiches by people who had recognised me from the Uluru climb. Almost unbelievably, I was at a tiny petrol station and Ben the Ranger, who escorted me down the rock five days’ prior, gave me a tap on the shoulder and we chatted over a coffee. His opening line of, “Finally I caught up to give you that fine” was a good’un. As it has been since Darwin, generosity and openness has been present from all. It has been a key reason why my morale, to the confused disappointment of friends following on Instagram, is at a pretty good level.

Injury Time Drama

As I approached Port Augusta, green grass and the coast came into my view once again. The last time I had really seen either was in the NT. The coast technically represented the crossing of Australia but, until I reached Adelaide, the job was far from finished. Unanticipated problems are a constant on a trip of this type – expect the unexpected – and my final week represented just that.

It started when I felt that familiar wobble on the rear wheel: every cyclist knows the feeling. You squeeze the brakes, pull over to the side of the road and see a deflated tyre. Punctures are just one of those things when you ride bikes. The issue though was a significantly balding rear tyre which was more of a drama. A standard inner tube replacement took place and got me another 100km before an even more unwelcome short sharp pop occurred.

And so began the nursing process. My rear tyre had developed a hole at its weakest point which, with a fully inflated inner tube, simply burst every time I rode. The issue got increasingly worse and I had more punctures in a 48-hour period than I had had over the previous 23,000km. Each one requiring me to stop, remove all my bags and the rear wheel to assess the problem. I used patches, gaffe tape, electrical tape, spare inner tubes and anything else I could find to manufacture a solution.

The tyre could not be more than half inflated and made for an energy-sapping and unrelaxing finale into Adelaide. More effort for less speed is a shocking combination. Added to that, because of the bulge, it felt as though I was going over a mini speed bump every rotation – that’s around 80 speed bumps per minute. Again, more effort for less speed. My patience was running thin and my quantity of repairs was even more sparse than the landscape I was riding through.

It the words of Sir Alex Ferguson, it was Squeaky Bum Time. I had ridden so far along this road and with 25km to go, I was cutting up my final inner tube to act as a protective barrier glued inside the tyre while carving away at the bulge to reduce the bounce.

With darkness descending, there was another flat. Every forced stoppage and rear wheel removal made me contemplate just putting my thumb out and getting a lift. But something told me to just find a solution. The easy option was to hitchhike, the truly satisfying option was to try and improvise a way to overcome the issue. My mindset was committed to the idea that it was possible.

A very unexpected and notorious 15km climb awaited, of which I was blissfully ignorant. Finally, with a headtorch on, I hobbled and hopped my way up to the Adelaide Hills to be greeted by Jennifer and Michael, a shower and a Gin & Tonic. It signified the end of the trans-Australian adventure and a welcome chance to put my feet up.

Stuart Highway Conclusions

It took me exactly 30 days to cover the 3,500km from Darwin to Adelaide via Uluru.

I suppose the majority of cyclists go Perth to Sydney, some take the east coast via Brisbane, while others take the more remote option of straight down the middle. There is no normal way to cycle across Australia and neither is there a right or a wrong way. It is a brilliant place to explore by bike and whatever route you take; a memorable experience is guaranteed.

For me, the Stuart Highway was not the first option that sprung to mind but the more I looked at a map of Australia, the more obvious an option it became. Even disregarding being able to see Uluru, something about it just drew me in and I’m grateful for that.

Around 85% of Australians live within 50km of the coast. Given this is the sixth largest country in the world, it means there is a large amount of space in the middle; the Outback. It is both varied and monotonous; simple and adventurous. It has a distinctive charm of its own with a sub-tropical north, dry barren deserts, majestic rock formations, salt flats, roaming livestock and soaring eagles. It is nature in its very purest form; wild and inhospitable but totally enchanting at the same time.

As Jack Thompson said, “To spend time alone in the Australian bush is to experience our union with nature. It is powerfully reassuring.”

This stint has been a true highlight of the previous nine months. It has been challenging, strenuous and unyielding but in that, I found a sense of beauty and calm.