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Australia – new country, new culture, just about new everything. Due to dwindling finances I had to leave New Zealand quicker than I would have liked, and it became apparent that to ride the entire East Coast of Oz was no longer viable from a monetary perspective either. Rather it would make sense to choose a section in which to ride and explore this to a more thorough degree. I have learned to be philosophical about compromises like this – of course I’m very disappointed to miss out on such a wonderful part of country, but the bottom line is that I still get to ride my bicycle along a stunning coastline in Australia; the other side of the world from where I grew up. Things are always better in perspective.
Ready to leave Brisbane
Thus it transpired that I arrived in Brisbane, a destination I had not banked on making a base. But if I have had to become proficient at one thing on my travels it is adaptability, and with the help of some very kind folks I made a little home there for a few days whilst organizing my plans. Those folk were in fact the result of some glorious traveling karma. Lily, the Australian cyclist, traveler, writer and sustainability innovator whom I met while cycling across the USA happened to have spent her formative years in Brisbane. Her mum Susan and step-dad Peter hosted me in their home and make me feel like one of the family during my stay. Unfortunately, despite their best efforts, even they could not control the weather. Within hours of arrival a storm broke, and downpours were to become part of my very soul for the next week. All attempted sightseeing in Brisbane became futile, so instead I filled time shooting a few interviews. Ben Southall was the winner of ‘The Greatest Job in the World’ competition last year, and since completing his 6 month stint as caretaker around the Great Barrier Reef he is now working with Queensland Tourism. Originally a Pom (The Aussie term for English, which I must say I quite enjoy), Ben is now planning ‘The Greatest Expedition in the World.’ Always a sucker for expeditions, it’s very exciting to hear about the planned journey, a 1600km trip along the Great Barrier Reef following Captain Cook’s original route. Following that I caught up with Brent Staker, a pro AFL player for the Brisbane Lions. As a keen soccer and rugby fan I’ve always been curious about Aussie Rules, and it does sound like a blast. The appeal? ‘It’s a game for real men!’ laughs Brent. With his descriptions of the physicality, I don’t doubt it and would love to have a go, although I fear my current muscle-starved cyclist’s body wouldn’t last too long…
I could wait around for good weather no longer, and so left behind Susan and Peter en route for the coast. Arriving in Surfer’s Paradise on the Gold Coast, it was just about possible to make out this famous tourist destination through the rain. Normally boasting golden sands and great surf, skyscrapers dominate the land behind. It’s a strange dichotomy of the beautiful and, in my opinion, the unsightly. Pushing on along the busy Gold Coast Highway, I may have missed the true appeal of the area, but was not disappointed to be making miles southwards. Eventually I found a quiet back road and happily pedaled my way alongside the ocean. Constant drizzle kept me cool in the damp heat, and by 6pm I’d reached Byron Bay. Byron is famous as a hub for artists and creative types, as well as another of the numerous surf centres on the coast. I was now in New South Wales, and had been excited about reaching the area having heard tales of its fame (and infamy.) But, as with Brisbane and the Gold Coast before, the deluge obscured any potential views and having lost an hour by crossing the state border (NSW does not observe daylight saving) I crawled into my tent and fell asleep to the pitter patter of raindrops on the fly.
Possibly my favourite house number sign ever
I decided to take the major route, the Pacific Highway, rather than the more remote back roads due to the weather conditions. As such 85 miles passed without major incident. Feeling the exertion was enough for the day, the town of Maclean happened at just the right time. A quirky place, the 'Scottish Town in Australia' I was later told, and upon entry one can see various Clan tartans displayed along the telegraph poles. Wandering into the first pub I found to ask my usual questions regarding free and safe tent-pitching availability, no more than 30 seconds must have passed before my empty hand was filled with a beer. Thus started a night of jovial merry-making and frivolity with the locals. I was mainly adopted by Deano, a shrimp fisherman who took it upon himself to look after me and meet the townsfolk. Everyone was intrigued with my trip, if not totally understanding of why anyone would want to do such a thing. They were also delighted that I wasn’t a Kiwi or a Pom. Irish was fine! Leaving my things at the pub and putting on a (relatively) clean t-shirt, we jumped in a cab to Yamba – a coastal town 20 km away. There more beers were had by all, and my bedtime of 10pm came and went without a complaint. At 3.30am I finally made my way back to the pub where my belongings were stashed, and where Deano had offered to pay for a room for me. I crawled into bed feeling exhausted. These are the things I will remember though – the unplanned meetings and events that allow one to really access a country. My three beer limit had also been passed, and although not by much, it was enough to make me sleep very deeply.
Coffs in the morning sun
7.00am came around much too early for my liking. But with flood warnings being issued for the northern part of the state I was keen to get further south and so dragged myself onto the bike. The morning ride covered 40kms on a country road alongside the Clarence River, and passing through Grafton I hit another back road which would lead me all the way to Coffs Harbour, 85kms to the South-East. The going was hard, and half way though the lack of sleep caught me with me. Were it not for some truly captivating moments of watching Kangaroo’s hop through the wet bush, and listening to Kookaburras chatter noisily I’m not sure I would have made it. But concentrating on the wonder of the nature around me I pressed into the headwind, over the constant rolling spurs from the Great Dividing Range and made my way slowly to Coffs. With 30km to go I realized that at the bottom of each roll in the road the water level was steadily rising. My wheels were now covered up to halfway at worst, and I began to fear that if I didn’t make it to the coast quickly I could be stuck in the bush for the night. Traffic had been few and far between, and I didn’t fancy my chances out there. With this appreciation for the gravity of the situation, my second wind kicked in and carried me forward with newfound intensity. Relief swathed my being as I crested the final mound and freewheeled out of the forest into the first of the suburban settlements. As days go, it was perhaps not as noteworthy as other’s I have had, but in terms of days I’ll look back on as significant, it’s right up there. Conquering myself , my doubts and failings as a cyclist and traveller, is often the hardest part of the journey – a sentiment I’m sure others will relate to. This day I completed another 140kms with minimal sleep and conditions nothing short of atrocious, despite spending 95% of the time wishing to give up. Pride in what you do is essential, whatever that may be. Rewarding such endeavours is also key, and two substantial dinners later I put my head down for eight blissfully peaceful hours.
Coffs was beautiful, and the following morning the sun finally broke through to allow me the opportunity for breakfast on the beach. Mercifully I was treated to such weather all day, and another 125kms brought me to the town of Kempsey. Planning to pass through, I ended up chatting to some residents at a local trailer park and decided to pitch my tent there for the night. An evening of light-hearted banter completed an enjoyable day on the whole, but by 9pm my body was switching off and so I gave in, retiring to my ever-comfy sleeping bag and camping mat.
The NSW Coastline
Another 50kms on the highway the next day left my nerves shredded – the once 6-metre wide shoulder that I could lazily weave around on began to shrink until it eventually disappeared all together. The volume of traffic traveling alongside was high bordering on solid and there were a few too many close calls for my liking. A quick word with myself and I made a decision. I’d ride to Port Macquarie and stop there for the night. 30 more bone jangling kilometres and I pulled into the Port as the sun finally banished the few remaining clouds from the. It was a perfect afternoon, and I made the most of it by taking a nap on the beach. Boosted by the unexpected shut-eye I pedaled out to a lighthouse to the south and sat admiring the view for miles down the coastline. It was stunning, and I felt at peace; the waves lapped gently into the shore at regular intervals, no doubt annoying the surfers but delighting those of us just wishing to simply sit and appreciate.
The Newcastle breakwall
Wet weather made an unwelcome reappearance for the next couple of days as I rode towards Newcastle, uncompromising in my determination to keep going while there was no chance of enjoying relaxation on the beach. After nearly 900 km of riding in 6 days, I took the chance for a day off with Jen and Jordi, Couchsurfing hosts in the city. Coffee shops, time by the beach and general unloaded riding around the waterfront was just what I needed, in between studying maps of the upcoming ride and other general banal tasks which had mounted up. In the evening I joined Jordi and his local indoor football team for a couple of games – my first taste of footy in 12 months. Once a fit, keen and dare I say reasonably good soccer player, this game was quite a shock to my now cycling-specific body. The fast pace left me breathless, my touch was heavy and my tackling poor at best. Cracking good fun though, and luckily in the morning my legs didn’t complain too much.
The perfect moon-shaped beach of Bondi
Leaving via a delightful 30km dedicated rail to trail conversion, I spent the next night in Gosford, and the following day finally hit suburban chaos. The reward for triumph and perseverance in this case was entry into none other than Sydney – the 'sexiest city in the world,' according to a magazine I’d read a few days previously. My contact in the city was a friend of someone who I’d met in Wellington, NZ – another of the fabulous connections one makes whilst travelling. Bryn helped me to make the most of my time in New Zealand’s capital, and his mate Pete did every bit as much to make my visit to Sydney a memorable one. Both he and his flat mate Joel welcomed me like a long lost friend, and I cannot say how much it means to me to be received into a group of interesting and exciting people instantaneously; the lack of contact and comradeship such as this is one of the few sacrifices a cycle tourist makes, but is all the more enjoyable when rediscovered. It helped of course that Pete lives less than two minutes walk away from Bondi beach, and four days of unadulterated perfection were spent on the beach, around the beach and near the beach.
It's hard not to take a pretty picture in Sydney
I did of course venture into the city proper to cycle across the harbour bridge, and wander around looking suitably touristy near the Opera House. The days of long cycling and rainy days were over, and both combined to leave me feeling a strong sense of achievement in journeying down this relatively small section of the Australian Coast. Often during days off the bike I have tasks to complete or activities that I feel I must experience – this is an observation rather than a complaint I must add. However it is rare than I spend a period of time being absolutely idle – kicking back in the most truly relaxing way I can imagine. My time in the country was short, under a month in duration, but certainly not dull. I had planned for long hot days struggling to cope in the sun; instead I found myself poised on that fine line between cycling and swimming. I camped in the bush, stayed at caravan parks, slept on the beach and met more people who brightened my days, enriched my journey and showed me the highlights of their respective residences. As a country I only scratched the surface, if that, but as a personal path the wanderings were of a much consequential nature. I felt like I overcame adversity within my own shortcomings, and can now look back on the adventure as all the more gratifying for the diversity within. The rest of the landmass must wait for me, and I certainly plan a return visit at some point in the future.
Next however is a challenge of a completely new sort. My time in Oz was fleeting to save money, and so it was onward to South East Asia where financial worries would be eased by the cheaper cost of living. I boarded the flight to Thailand knowing nothing of what to expect – the time I had set aside for planning had been spent drinking beers on Bondi Beach. And so I set off into the unknown –which is actually the best way to do it, don’t you think?