I don’t think it would be a stretch to suggest that one of the lowest points of the journey across Asia was the time we spent cleaning our bikes in Singapore. The heat was almost unbearable, and we had been told by every Australian that we had ever met that, “Australia is the hardest country to get into with dirty camping gear!” Having experienced the wrath of a New Zealand customs official on entering the country a number of years back, we heeded the advice from our Aussie mates and sweated it out; bringing the bikes back to a mighty fine, glistening black that rivalled their initial appearance. They looked wonderful!
Having had the pleasure of quite possibly the most miserable cabin crew known to man on our Qantas flight from Singapore, it was with some trepidation that we pushed our trolleys with precariously balanced bike boxes on them towards the airport staff. I was nervous about having to open the boxes anyway as I have a deep mistrust of anyone who handles “fragile” equipment and didn’t know if I would just break down sobbing if our beloved bikes had been damaged. As it was, the first person we actually spoke to in Australia was a South African…
“Howzit bru? Have you filled out your Ebola landing card? Lekker, lekker, head over there….” I honestly didn’t know if I should laugh or cry; it was like being back in the Biltong Triangle in South-West London…
On we walked, more confused than ever as to where we were and what we were doing, until we came to the young lad who clearly did not want to be at the airport on a Friday night (I can’t blame him at all); “What’s in the boxes?” was the first question…
Me: “Touring bikes”
YLWDNWTBT (Young Lad Who Did Not Want To Be There): “Are they clean?”
Me: “Yes, we spent hours cleaning them in Singapore.”
YLWDNWTBT: “Is there any dirt on the tyres?”
YLWDNWTBT: “Cool, have a good night!”
Katie and I walked through uncertainly and then looked at each other in absolute amazement, he had not even bothered to check inside the box or look at any of our camping gear. They have all the biosecurity in the world but we could have waltzed straight in with any one of about a hundred things that apparently will kill off the Australian agriculture industry overnight (according to all the brochures). It was a complete and utter joke; we of course couldn’t have cared less as it meant we were through and ready without having to try and unpack our (immaculately clean) bikes.
Just to add to this lunacy; when we took our bikes into a very good bike mechanic in South Perth for him to tune them before heading off towards the Nullarbor we heard an infinitely more ridiculous story…
A Kiwi cyclist had apparently paid some bike store in the middle of China to clean and pack his bike so that he could head off to Australia. When he arrived and took the bike into the bike shop to get it put back together it was still covered in a thick layer of mud as the bike shop in China had just taken his money, packed the bike and sent him on his way. He had also just waltzed* into Australia without his bike being checked and incidentally was apparently carrying a few kilograms of that wonderfully sticky Chinese mud that adorns the roads there. Australia, you really do need to sort this out!
* The use of the word “waltzed” twice in one blog is obviously in homage to Waltzing Matilda; just letting you know that it was not an accident!
Waiting for us at the airport were two of my old housemates from the good-ole-days in London Town – Partyboy and Samantha. It really was epic seeing them at the airport and being whisked back to their pad in South Perth for a couple of tasty post midnight beverages, a quick catch up and then the sensible option of getting some rest before what we all knew was going to be a massive weekend.
Given that we had just spent the best part of 10 months on the continent of Asia we were under no illusion that arriving in Australia would be an enormous culture shock to the system. This culture shock morphed its way into reality quickly enough when we visited a very fine Saturday farmers’ market to purchase the week’s groceries with Partyboy and Sam. First there was the quiet serenity that comes from a lack of car horns piercing your ears every time a queue forms, then there were the ludicrous number of well groomed and well fed dogs being led around on leads (as opposed to Asia where they are just leading themselves around), there were real coffee aromas wafting through the air, there were pork-belly buns on sale and most notably the locals were actually speaking a version of English that I could fully comprehend. It was abundantly clear that we had come so far east that we were now back in the west; and whilst we supped at our flat whites and tried not to spill pork-belly buns all over the place we realised that we had really missed these little comforts that you take for granted and were truly stoked to finally be in Australia!
Uber it seems has taken off everywhere in the world, but being on bicycles we had not needed to use it for a very long time; this started changing in Singapore and by the time we arrived in Perth it was understood that it is just how the world works these days. Uber has had plenty of controversy in the media, but I can tell you right now there will be no complaints from us given that the first time we used it a Hummer turned up with a lad driving who actually seemed to think he was on the set of a Hollywood blockbuster. The trip down to Freo (which as I found out later is not short for freeway but Australian slang for Fremantle) was excellent and set the tone for the rest of the weekend…
Our last couple of days in Perth were spent putting the bikes back together, getting them professionally tuned, buying food supplies and hunting down reasonably priced camping equipment. The most important items that were required were sleeping bags; in the heat of SE Asia we had made the decision to send a lot of our winter equipment home (including the sleeping bags) as “Australia is surely always hot… it certainly is on Home and Away anyway”. We could not have been more wrong, it was absolutely freezing in Perth and was surely going to get colder in the desert so we sucked it up and purchased the cheapest, bulkiest, most uncomfortable sleeping bags from K-Mart for the princely sum of $40 (for two).
With the goodbyes said, the bikes packed and the motivation at a fairly low level, we set off from Perth with the thought of the Australian continent stretching out for thousands of kilometres daunting us. We took it easy to start with and after about an hour believed we certainly deserved a second breakfast at McDonalds and sat there for the best part of two hours supping on their incredibly good hot chocolates and watching the world warm up from the comfort of their wifi zone (incidentally Australia has not yet grasped the Wifi revolution and the only place you seem to be able to get reliable, free Wifi is at McDonalds). Finally we decided that it was now-or-never, left the relative comfort and headed for the hills. Now for those of you who don’t know, Australia, or at least the road we were on was deceptively hilly and far too taxing for us. It had been months since we had seen hills like the ones out of Perth and by the end of the day we were well short of our goal of getting to 110km, so scary bush camp presumably surrounded by all sorts of crocodiles, snakes, spiders, and dingos ensued. As the days wore on we got our hill-legs back and found it increasingly less difficult to cycle the bigger days. It is amazing how the quickly the body can get its fitness back.
We absolutely loved the cycling from Perth to Esperance and this was in no small way due to the locals. Every town we stopped at, every coffee shop we visited, and every picnic table we ate at we were inundated with questions, helpful advice and really good-natured banter. “Locals” ranged from displaced Kiwis, to displaced Kiwis and everything in between and always offered great advice and were always super concerned about our well-being…
Do you have enough water love?
Do you have enough food? You both look too skinny, do you want some food, particularly you! (pointing at Katie and emphasising the obvious; I certainly do not look skinny);
How far do you cycle in a day?
Please watch out for those road train thingy’s, they’re really big?
Out of all the advice we were never once warned about snakes and had to make polite enquiries on what best to do to avoid them; we were given lots of great tips and after a time it became routine to look for certain things, stamp our feet and make lots of noise. It seems that folk that don’t live in the cities have an appreciation for what snakes do and how they behave; it really has been reassuring picking their brains. And the snakes… almost every snake we have seen has either been slithering away from us with great speed or laying dead on the road; the only exception was the one that we actually saw get hit by a car, which is a sight to behold; or at least a sound one will never forget (but this is not about relieving some horrible memories, so I’ll leave it at that).
The advice that we never asked about and were never given was that of the Grey Nomad. Grey Nomads are a distinct demographic in Australia and as the name suggests they are usually greying on the head, are nomadic, and like to speed past cyclists with the gay abandon of a racing car driver. The Grey Nomad is generally a kind and generous soul, but like so many on this continent has a real inability to drive, let alone notice that a caravan is in fact usually wider than the car they are driving along in. The Grey Nomad also likes to randomly stop in front of oncoming trucks to either look at (and photograph with iPhone) Wild Flowers, or discuss the merits of cars over bicycles to us; this undoubtedly infuriates the truck driver and puts us at risk.
We have had many, many great evenings sitting around campfires and bingo halls, and raffle draws with numerous Grey Nomads and they are always good fun. They are also full of really useful information on road conditions, camping locations, and the prices of food for a 1000km radius. This said, the most useful and uplifting information that we were ever given was in Esperance when speaking to another displaced Kiwi of the Grey Nomad demographic and that was that “he knew there were two idiots on bicycles 20km before he spotted us!”; how you ask is this possible… well it would appear that every truck driver (and some Nomads) talk to each other on the radio and discusses in great detail what a pack of f*$^n idiots we are for cycling, but to watch out for us… believe me, this is comforting to know because road trains are not small and if they know we are on the road and we know they are coming it is a win-win situation!
One of the truly great things about Australia is the wildlife (snakes excluded). We were incredibly fortunate on this first stretch to see a lot of kangaroos – mostly dead on the side of the road, but also a reasonable number bouncing around. What a pleasure it is to see them up close in their natural environment. In fact, one night when we were sitting in our tent, tucked away on the edge of a bush we heard the sound of bouncing, then a halt and then a series of smaller, lighter bouncing sounds. As we peered out the door of our tent there was Skippy just taking in this strange rock formation looking thing (our tent). He stood and peered for a short time before bouncing off into the night. Now lets be honest, Australians probably couldn’t give a rats about this; but for Kiwis and Brits this is something truly awesome. We were in absolute travel bliss and were buzzing for days… in some respects it is sad that this has become the “norm”, but I will never forget the first encounter tucked away on the side of the road. Brilliant stuff!
On the flip side of seeing these truly epic marsupials there have been countless incidents with other wildlife, most notably the pesky magpie! The magpie is a creature we have both come to hate with an unabated passion. Cycling along we hear the shrill of chicks and then out the corner of our eye (or a shadow on the road) we see them coming… dive bombing directly on to our location… a number of times it felt as if we were in our own little Battle of Britain, or extras in Hitchcock’s Birds. This one particular day we could see the shadow of the inbound magpie approaching and just as it was getting really close I would raise my arm and scream out loud… and it would do a loop-the-loop and come back again, and again, and again. Failing to scare off the determined raider, I stopped and armed myself with a pathetic handful of stones… even though my throwing arm is “out of practice” (read… completely useless/directionally inept) it did the trick and the battle was won, however I am not too sure we will win this war! I guess it has to be said that without a doubt the funniest moment of this whole scene was when I was screaming and yelling profanities at the magpies (something along the lines of “show me your war face, magpie”) and out the corner of my eye I saw a lady leaning on a pitch fork shaking her head at these two idiots who not only appeared to be cycling across Australia but were having verbals with magpies. I had to laugh at the absurdity of the situation.
Now we all know Australians are competitive; we all love to hate Australians on the sporting field, on the cycling track and mostly in the swimming pool; mainly due to the fact that they have been so successful! But what we started seeing on our first week out of Perth seemed to take this competitiveness to levels that I would call ridiculous – mostly in small towns. Town slogans are a great way to show ones competitiveness: Pioneered with spirit; Small town, big heart; Lake Grace – The Wave Shire… implying that they have more spirit, more heart, and a better waving ability… but our favourite has to be Corrigin; which if you are having a “yes, I know that name, it is on the tip of my tongue sort of moment” then I can tell you that it is because Corrigin is the centre of the universe when it comes to the “Dog in a Ute” competition (see photographic evidence below).
To be honest it is all good-natured fun and certainly gives us a smile when we are putting in the big kms day after day.
Note: if anything, Corrigin should be most famous for the Mallee Tree café, owned and operated by yet another displaced Kiwi (from Invercargill, so the accent was incredibly hard to pick… picture Sir Anthony Hopkins in The World’s Fastest Indian mixed with 26 years in the WA wilderness). This has without question the best pies in Australian that we have tasted (we have eaten a LOT of guilt free pies); and to top it all off offers free wifi for guests (this truly is a rare commodity in Australia).
We absolutely love Australia; yes there is a lot of good-natured Aussie/Kiwi/British banter… but that is what it is… good natured. We have found Australians to be incredibly humble, kind, generous people who would do anything for you and certainly love telling (and listening intently) to a bloody good yarn mate. The first two weeks many things were different to what we expected and also what we had experienced in Asia but the undoubted highlight was staying with friends-of-friends-of-friends in Esperance.
When we arrived in Perth, Partyboy and Samantha worked the Facebook magic and hooked us up with Sonya, Jeff, Matt, and Renee in Esperance. When we arrived we were made to feel right at home; we had huge home cooked meals each night (with lots and lots of vegetables that cyclists crave), we chewed the proverbial fat over a couple of quiet beers, and learnt a hell of a lot about Australia, Australians, and the goings on of small towns. We absolutely loved it and when we headed off up towards Norseman and the Nullarbor, Jeff hooked us up with a place to stay in Salmon Gums so that we didn’t have spend our wedding anniversary in a tent! Like I said, we are loving Australia, the hospitality is second to none and that fact we can communicate in English is too good to be true.
Bring on the Nullarbor!