Aside from a couple of incredibly hot days in SE Asia, crossing the Nullarbor had been the biggest single challenge we had had since exiting China at the end of May. The eight-and-a-half day push had really taken it out of us, and as such we decided to prolong our stay in Ceduna. The decision was also made a lot easier by the fact that Laraine and Ivan were spending some time there.
After three nights and the consumption of countless empty calories at the very fine local pub next door to our campsite it was time to head off. We put this off as long as possible and it was not until well after lunch that we finally pushed our bikes back out onto the main street and pedalled off. We had by this time realised that although most of Australia is incredibly flat, it is also incredibly windy and this day was no exception. Unfortunately for us the wind was coming in off the Southern Ocean right into our face. This would not have been the case had we decided to continue along the Eyre Highway directly towards Port Augusta, but we had made the decision to head south out onto the Eyre Peninsula; one, to add to our kilometres (as we were now picturing passing 25,000km for the journey and to us that was important); two, we had a bit of time up our sleeves and knew it would be poorly spent if we just raced across to the South Australia wine region and spent it there; and third (and to us the most important reason), we were completely over having to share the roads with road-trains, bogans, and worst of all, Grey Nomads.
We had heard great things about the Eyre Peninsula and decided that a relatively leisurely seven days (and 700 odd kms) was just what the doctor had ordered. The first day, although into a head wind, was fantastic; the roads were devoid of heavy traffic, the ground only slightly rolling and we had great views of the sea for substantial periods. The plan was to make our way as far as Haslam, which, even by small-town-Australian standards is a very small town. Haslam has no shops, a barely operating Post Office, but it does have a campsite with a $5 honesty box (yes we paid). So we pulled in, set up our tent and then met the rudest person we were to meet in all of Australia (possibly on the whole journey). To be fair, we only met two rude people on the entire continent, which given the number of people we met I think this can be forgiven. I wont go into details, just to say that after taking an earful of Kiwi and Pom bashing, a quick mention of the latest Ashes result and the Rugby League was enough to send him scurrying in shame to his Winnebago.
The rest of the evening in Haslam passed without incident and we woke to a remarkably fresh (read: bloody freezing) morning, sun shining and a tail wind. A great start to the day. The only thing that we had planned for the day was to visit the Mocean restaurant at Streaky Bay as it had been recommended to us by a number of people in Ceduna. We reached the restaurant without incident and in good time and I would be lying if I said it was anything other than sensational. The food was top-drawer, as was the coffee, but the real highlight was the location. The restaurant is nestled right on the shore of the sheltered Streaky Bay, with its jetty protruding out into the calm waters. There were pelicans gliding effortlessly through the water, before taking off with great effort and gusto, just avoiding the fishermen who were hauling in their daily catch. The place was perfect, and to this day I am still confused as to why we didn’t just call it a day and kick back in the local colonial era hotel that afforded, what must have been even more incredible views.
It was with some disgruntlement, not to mention effort that we pushed off to find that our good friend the wind had returned to haunt us. The rest of the day passed by slowly, and after finding a secluded wild camping location near the road we smashed back the most absurd amount of food known to the human race and passed out with exhaustion. It was only in the morning when we awoke, tired, and broken that we realised we had hit the proverbial wall. Our guess is that it was a delayed reaction from pushing too hard across the Nullarbor and now we were in the middle of nowhere with no real option but to cycle on. Staying at the Streaky Bay hotel was, in hindsight looking more and more like the option we should have taken!
We cycled slowly, further down the Flinders Highway, which traverses the west coast of the Eyre Peninsula until we reached the settlement of Elliston. Elliston is a small town, much larger than Haslam, but nonetheless a small town and was the first of our goals on the Eyre Peninsula, for it is here that you can turn east onto the Birdseye Highway to traverse the Peninsula. Elliston is undoubtedly beautiful, but the two things that have lingered long in my memory are the fact that a giant snake came within a couple of feet of our bikes whilst we were cycling down into the town centre, passed across a finely groomed lawn and into a petrol station forecourt, which of course put me off the town forever; and second, the bakery is excellent. Had it not been for the snake we may still be hanging around this fine town rebuilding our strength on pies, sausage rolls, and burnt flat whites.
After what I like to refer to as a near death experience, because lets face it, a snake in Australia that comes that close to you is definitely a near death experience; we turned east and headed out on the Birdseye Highway. We spent two wonderful days and nights traversing the peninsula along what turned out to be a very remote road. The towns of Lock and Cleve came and went, with Lock being a particularly depressing place. The town’s charm had been winnowed away by the ever-present wall of wind that tears at the environment with unforgiving tendrils. And aside from the sight of tumbleweed being tossed effortlessly down the main street, there was also a flapping iron sheet making an infuriating noise somewhere off in the distance, and a pub, that although open did not have the warm welcoming committee of most small town drinking establishments in Australia. I was shocked at how a town that had so clearly been the hub of a larger community in the not too distant past could come to resemble what it did on that hot and dry spring day. To its credit we were able to stock up on much needed calories; in the form of potato crisps, cans of coke, bottles of chocolate milk, and of course, the trusty reheated meat pie. As you can see, quality of calories was not our major concern at this point.
The picture I have probably painted in your head does not do the rest of the Birdseye Highway justice. The countryside was incredibly nice, the road quiet, and the post boxes fantastically Australian (see our favourite below). We also met some wonderfully humble and kind locals who on more than one occasion asked us if we wanted to rest for the evening (even though it was always well before 10am when they asked). The highlight however was not the wonderful scenery or the kind locals but the places that we managed to find to wild camp. To my mind the first night on the Birdseye was without a doubt in the top 1 wild camping locations of the journey.
Okay, so it is important to realise that the wild camping location that I am referring to definitely was not as grand in terms of views, or as secluded as some others we had stayed at, however the all round experience was fantastic. Having pulled off the road and successfully pitched our tent in a location completely devoid of humans; concealed in such a way that no passing car, lost cyclist, or stumbling drunk would ever likely find us; and most important of all, a well-defined area around the tent where snakes could be easily seen and avoided at all costs; we cooked up a storm and settled in for the evening. It was only after the low hum of our new cooker and the business of putting away more calories was complete that we realised the sunset had turned the land a soft hue of red, coinciding with an absolute stillness and silence. As we peered out of our tent in awe of the spectacle that Mother Nature was putting on, we noticed a very small and exclusive party occurring. Two kangaroos had been joined by one emu, which to non-Australians is very, very exciting, particularly when they are basically within touching distance. The party then started cranking up with the sound of drums echoing through the silence; Katie and I were dumfounded and could not for the life of us work out where this sound was coming from. As the three moved in their separate directions (probably on the pull is our guess) the drum beat followed the emu and it didn’t take too much longer for us to register that this was in fact some sort of emu communication going down, not a drum beat at all. Well, we can confirm that it had the desired effect because it was not too long until one emu became two and then fortunately (or unfortunately depending on your point of view) the curtain came down as darkness enveloped us. If this epic scene was not enough, as we lay there waiting for sleep to take us we finally understood why the bad guys in Batman movies are terrified by the sound of him swooping down from the sky. Out of nowhere a very loud swooping sound shattered the once again silent night, came close enough to the roof of the tent to make us think we were this bird of prey’s dinner, and then without hesitation it was gone. Sleep finally took us, and in the morning, with the cold morning mist that had descended on our location we sat and pondered how incredibly lucky we had been the night before. We didn’t know it at the time, but sadly this was to be one of the last great wild camps of the journey, thankfully it is one we will remember long into the future.
The eastern end of the Birdseye brought us to the quaint little town of Cowell, nestled nicely on the Franklin Harbour. According to some, the town has some of the best fish and chips in Australia; sadly for us we arrived too late to indulge, so, after pitching the tent in one of the nicest campgrounds we had been to we instead headed for the Franklin Harbour Hotel. It appeared to us that the entire town was probably based around the Hotel and it didn’t take too long for us to realise a lot of the locals were over the moon with the result of the South Australia National Football League Grand Final (a victory for West Adelaide). It put my enthusiasm for the England/Wales result in the Rugby World Cup to shame, and we sat discreetly in a corner, celebrating not only the Rugby result, but being back on the bikes and pushing through what was a very tough week up against the wall.
Following a couple of quiet jars in the corner of the ever more raucous Hotel we snuck out a side door and headed for our tent; having hatched a plan that would require early mornings, late nights and a lot of luck. We were confident that we could easily reach the campsite of Spear Creek with three days cycling, so decided that we would do it in two longer days and spend a more leisurely time later on in the wine region. The days were mostly uneventful as we pushed through South Australia’s third largest city, Whyalla and onwards back towards the Eyre Highway. Believe me when I say it was absolutely no pleasure whatsoever re-joining this behemoth of a thoroughfare. After a couple of hours negotiating the ever increasing, impatient traffic we pushed through Port Augusta, stopping at McDonalds to use their wifi and load up on yet more terrible calories, came as close as one can come to being hit on a bicycle without being hit, and headed for the Flinders Ranges; in our opinion the delineation between the back of beyond, and not the back of beyond in Australia (apologies WA peeps).
We had heard of Spear Creek from a number of Grey Nomads, and given their proclivity for money saving and quality all wrapped in one; we thought we would join the undoubted throngs. Spear Creek is located roughly 20km from Port August up the Old Wilmington Road, through the settlement of Woolundunga near the base of the infamous Horrocks Pass and the mighty Flinders. As it turns out the throngs we were expecting did not eventuate, and the settlement of Woolundunga is not at really a settlement at all, it is more a collection of dilapidated farm buildings. So if you are heading this way and banking on Woolundunga for supplies, don’t! Pick them up in Port Augusta. This oversight was not detrimental to our dinner, but it did mean that we would have to climb over Horrocks Pass on two cereal bars and hope for a long sweeping downhill to Wilmington. This dilemma was soon forgotten as we set ourselves up for the night in the truly beautiful campsite, which is nestled in amongst a forest of lofty gum trees with a stunning vista out towards the back of beyond from the elevated position of the Flinders foothills. Yet another place we wish we could have spent more time.
Numerous people had told us; most notably the incredibly rotund owner of a bakery, that cycling up Horrocks Pass was impossible and we would definitely be pushing our bikes. We took this as a challenge and decided against following the main road down towards the Clare and Barossa Valleys. For all the chat of Horrocks Pass it was a bit of a non-event. Yes, it was certainly the toughest climb (to that point) in Australia, but it was by no means impossible and within a relatively short time we were coasting down towards Wilmington and an undeniable amount of food.
The first thing you notice once crossing the Flinders is how incredible lush and verdant the countryside is, relative of course to the back of beyond; we were astounded by the change and could hardly contain our excitement. Pointing out this and that as if we had never seen green grass, roadside shrubs, or fruit trees. On the first day we took it easy and made it only as far as the town of Laura, where we stayed at the municipal campsite and enjoyed what was to become a bit of regular treat… the Schnitzel Night at the local pub. This is basically a half price meal that I would recommend to anyone loitering around in these parts, particularly if you are a cycle tourist. The salad bars are large and endless and helped stave off the on-going issue of hunger that a cycle tourist endures.
Through reasonably bad planning on our behalf we had managed to reach the very popular tourist location of the Clare Valley just in time to coincide with some sort of public holiday in South Australia, so our options for accommodation were thin on the ground. We ended up getting a spot at the very nice Leasingham campsite, whose main attractions were the fact you could walk through a hole in the fence and be at a vineyard cellar door, and that it was a 200m cycle to the very handy Riesling Trail – a rail trail on which one can cycle from vineyard to vineyard. We booked in for three nights, and no sooner had we setup the tent and got nicely settled with a bottle of local wine and a very fine cheese board did the hordes start arriving. This of course can always go one of two ways, and when young children are involved it almost always goes the wrong way for the unwilling participants at a campground. Setting up right next to us were three couples and numerous children, both theirs and others that had gravitated towards our area. The delightful campsite experience on the Riesling Trail was resting on a knife-edge, and for all money it was going to be one that would require an awful lot of the local produce to get us through. Thankfully, and to the credit of the large group that turned up, they came over to our tent, apologised in advance, both for their children in the mornings and their noise at night and then welcomed us over to join in. Win-win.
We spent the next three evenings over at their campsite, around a fabulous fire that burnt inside the drum of an up-cycled old washing machine, chewing the fat and generally having a great time. Our days were mostly spent cycling up and down the Riesling Trail tasting the local produce and trying to stay in the shade as much as possible.
It was with much sadness that we had to roll up the tent and be on our way, but it was softened by the fact our next location was the Barossa Valley. We took our time getting there and enroute cycled through the Jacobs Creek vineyard, tasted the ice cream at the Heston Blumenthal recommended Maggie Beer’s Farm Shop and embraced the stunning countryside around the towns of Nuriootpa and Tanunda.
In Ceduna we had contacted Ross and Betty who we had met at the Nullarbor Roadhouse, and who had welcomed us to stay in Adelaide. So it was their house we were making a beeline for from the Barossa Valley. For anyone cycling into Adelaide from this direction, a word of warning, don’t stay in Gawler, the campground there was like something out of The Wire. Our one evening there was spent hoping our tent would not blow away and that in fact we would not be blown away in a domestic violence scene or something equally sinister. The morning couldn’t arrive quickly enough, and once it did we cycled in towards one of the busiest roads of the journey. Rush hour from Gawler to Adelaide is something that should be avoided at all costs, at all times.
Having survived the outskirts of Adelaide we were pleasantly surprised that the ‘burbs and inner city are fully setup for cyclists, the like of which we had not seen since our first day in Rotterdam many moons before. The cycle along the River Torrens was exceptionally beautiful and we found the locals to be extra courteous towards cyclists. The highlight, no doubt though was seeing the Adelaide Oval appear on the banks of the river near the centre of town. It was not long before we had negotiated the perfectly planned city centre and were out the other side heading for Ross and Betty’s.
The four days we spent at Ross and Betty’s were absolutely fantastic. We were spoilt beyond belief. I could write an entire blog on what we got up to just in their company. We were chauffeured around the Adelaide Hills, taken to the German settlement of Hahdorf (where I consumed surely the world’s largest Wiener Schnitzel), given a driving commentary of exactly how to get out of Adelaide (something that we took note of, but still managed to screw up when we attempted it). BBQs were rife at all times, as was the consumption of numerous wines and beers, sport beamed directly into our minds on the big screen TV, dinner was taken at the Seacliff Beach Hotel (I really recommend the Flathead fish from this part of the world), a classic car show, and a night drive to the Adelaide Hills gave us a great view of Adelaide. All of this doesn’t even take into account the cycling that we got up to, and of course the walk into, and around the truly glorious arena that is the Adelaide Oval.
Ross and Betty are big into cycling, and ordinarily if we stop somewhere for a break we would rather not see a bike, but this was different, very different. Ross and Betty have top-notch carbon fibre bikes, and a spare, so it seemed a little bit silly not to take them out for a spin. On one of the days, Ross took us on a leisurely 50km circuit (believe me when I say that cycling 50km on carbon is almost like not cycling at all after plodding along on our touring tanks) of Adelaide. We took in the edge of the city, had a chat with the Papua New Guinea cricket team who were warming up for a couple of matches, embraced world class coffee, checked out where Lleyton Hewitt lives, and the truly epic cycle along the Esplanade out near Glenelg. A special day! But the best was still to come…
First there was the visit to the Adelaide Oval, a place that has held an almost mythical appeal to me ever since watching (on TV) the Windies famous 1 run victory on Australia Day in 1993 and Paul Collingwood’s double century in vain in the Ashes whitewash of 06-07. We approached the ground and were considering looking for a tour when we saw Ross wandering over to a security guard. He mentioned to the security guard that we were a couple of crazy Poms who had cycled to Adelaide from London and would love to look around. The security man looked around, double checked, and then just opened the gates for us with a “good on ya, well done” as we snuck on through. We spent the next 30 minutes walking around and taking it all in. I think that the whole thing impressed even Katie!
Second, on the Saturday morning I was fortunate enough to be taken out for a peleton type cycle; it was a 50km out-and-back trip, with sprint finishes at both ends and an average speed of just a touch over 32km/h to be maintained. What a way to start your Saturday morning! Cycling on carbon certainly convinced both Katie and I that we needed new bikes as soon as the journey was over.
Massive shout out to Ross and Betty for looking after us so well, it was an absolute pleasure and we look forward to seeing you in the not too distant future at an edition of the Tour Down Under. Oh, I almost forgot… they also sorted me out a suit for the Melbourne Cup. A truly top-drawer couple that couldn’t have hosted us any better. Yet more evidence that the world is full of truly wonderful people!