At the end of July 2011, for the first time ever, an Aussie and a Brit shared the honours in yellow and green respectively at the Tour de France, so what better time to hop on my bike, cover a similar distance over a similar period of time (if not quite as fast), and see if Australia really had gone bike-crazy.

Australia West
60 miles, 17 mph average16 Sept 11Day 1

Arriving in the dead of night but with my body clock still out to lunch on British Summer Time, I was disoriented but relieved to stand upright instead of upside down in the land down under. The constellations in the clear night sky were inverted, and the following morning I found the sun thankfully still rising in the east but oddly heading toward the northern sky when I instinctively look south to feel its warmth on my face at home. I had swapped autumn’s blustery gales at home for a gentle spring zephyr that they call the Freemantle Doctor when it cools the coast in summertime. I was riding on the left but with distances marked in kilometres and finding my way around on the other side of the world was proving a challenge already.

Australia isn't actually on the other side of the world to England, a tunnel drilled through the centre of the earth from Perth would emerge near Bermuda, but Perth is the world's most remote city and yet I felt strangely at home, possibly because almost a third of the population is of British descent and British born residents even outnumber Australians here. There are many reasons to live in Perth and that most cited is the climate. Perry Como may have sung that the bluest skies you've ever seen are in Seattle, but he was wrong, they are in Perth.

I soon picked up the Swan River trail, which ran along the north shore of the estuary past the central business district with its glassy skyscrapers and rode west, downstream past millionaire's villas. Beautifully located but often lacking in style apart from that of Australia's nouveau riche typified by concrete lions and garish pavilions (or am I just jealous as hell?!). In recent years many Aussies have grown wealthy on the country's mineral wealth and I'd been told that one of these mansions belonged to a man who literally hit the mother-lode when he crash landed his plane in the outback only to find his makeshift landing strip was composed of a couple of miles of the highest quality iron ore. He died some years later leaving his billion dollar estate to his housekeeper.

After a few more wrong turns I found my way to Freemantle, lying at the mouth of the Swan River, 15 miles from Perth but a million miles away in terms of personality. Creative, relaxed, open-minded, 'Freo' makes a cosy home for its myriad painters, writers and musicians. The America's Cup was raced off Freemantle and won by Australia II some years back, elevating the town's status as a yachting Mecca ever since. The beach road ran due south and I followed it to the home of Andrew & Joanne, friends of friends with whom I’d been in contact for a while, endlessly picking their brains in prep for my journey. They were the perfect hosts, wining and dining me, treating me like a long lost brother, whilst filling all the gaps in my research of what lay ahead with their encyclopaedic knowledge. They had crossed the Nullabor twice and completed a full circumnavigation of Australia all on recumbent bikes, as well as riding from the Arctic Ocean in northern Alaska down the Pacific coast of the USA to Mexico.

Australia West
70 miles, 8 mph average17 Sept 11Day 2
Waikiki - Jarrahdale
Munda Biddi Trail - Dwellingup

I covered the first 25 miles on the flat through sheep farms and equestrian centres on a road lined with eucalyptus the boughs of which were weighed down with any number of bright green parakeets, pink breasted galahs and a host of other exotic birds I’d never seen before.

At Jarrahdale , a picturesque historic town on the Darling scarp, I joined the Munda Biddi Trail and headed south, surrounded by some of Western Australia’s deepest Jarrah forests and where the numerous old timber cottages reveal Jarrahdale's origins as one of WA’s first timber towns. The Munda Biddi Trail is a world-class, nature-based, off-road cycling track meandering through scenic river valleys and the magnificent eucalypt forests of the State’s South West. Its name means 'path through the forest' in the Nyoongar Aboriginal language, and there can't be many places left in the world where a 1000-kilometre track could be built within an undeveloped natural corridor through such vast areas of unspoiled forests and bushland.

The trail was tougher than I expected, climbing up onto the escarpment that runs south from here to join the Sterling range nearer the southern coast. I’d expected the hills but not the shale-like pea gravel surface that was sketchier than Rolf Harris' note book and had the bike slewing sideways at every turn with my average speed dropping to a miserable low.

Stopping for the night, I picked up some provisions at the village shop and asked an old timer if he knew what the weather forecast was, mainly to pass the time really. He looked at me and said, “You’re gonna get some weather”

“Yes, but what type of weather?” I replied

“Some weather!” he said as if I was dangerously stupid.

Clearly he was to weather forecasting what Anne Frank was to bongo playing, so I left it at that.

Australia West
76 miles, 10 mph average18 Sept 11Day 3
Munda Biddi Trail: Dwellingup - Bunbury

Dwellingup is a little forest town, with a big reputation as a centre for recreation and outdoor education activities. Steeped with history, the town is situated in the heart of the forested hills of the Darling escarpment and close to the Murray River where tall blackbutt, jarrah and karri forest shade the river valley. The Dwellingup Visitor Centre has a great exhibition about the changes in the mill towns in the area over the last century, including a display about the terrible bushfire of 1961, which almost destroyed the town and the more recent fire of 2007 which came to within just 100m of the rebuilt houses. Bushfires here are commonplace and many of the tree trunks bear witness to this with their charred trunks.

Potentially more destructive was the discovery in the 1950's of bauxite, particularly when the mining engineers found that they could profit from the timber as well as the aluminium ore and for a while Australia had the dubious honour of being the world’s largest producer of woodchips – not bad for the least forested continent outside of Antarctica.

‘Some weather’ had turned into some storm. It had rained heavily all night and I woke surrounded by water that had surrounded my tent. Being the world’s driest, hottest, least forested, flattest continent, I was of course soaked though, perishing cold, and riding amongst tall eucalyptus trees that cover these hillsides as far as the eye can see. So unexpected was the weather (they’d been having a drought until I arrived) that I hadn’t even packed a rain jacket, so I called to the general store and bought the only coat they had. A bushman’s overcoat the size and weight of my tent, a far cry from the close fitting hi-tech fabrics I usually spoil myself with, but it was a lifesaver and completely waterproof, but even that didn’t stop the lashing rain pouring down the back of my neck.

The dense forest stretched away to either side seemingly endless, with at least half of the plant species completely alien to me. It seemed amazing, living in such a tame environment as Europe that out here you could venture just a few miles into the bush and stand where no man had ever stood before. You could also get very lost, very quickly and after four more hours in the persistent downpour, made no better by being peppered with hailstones, I grew weary of the lonesome Munda Biddi and rode down the escarpment to warmer climes. I was soaking, frozen and feeling very sorry for myself but time and the hour run through the roughest day so I headed to Bunbury as it was my only option of a bed for the night, being way too wet and windy to camp again. I’d been battling a fierce headwind all day and again my average speed was hopeless – I’ve run quicker!

Australia West
88 miles, 14 mph average19 Sept 11Day 4
Highway 1: Bunbury - Manjimup

Getting an early start out of Bunbury I had to laugh at the sign, typical of Australian bluntness, warning any traffic that was accidentally trying to the enter the dual carriageway by the exit ramp “Wrong Way, Go Back” it bellowed, and I’m surprised it didn’t top that off with “You Bloody Idiot!”. I love the no-nonsense way that Australians name things such as the shrub I’d seen with red flowers that looked like bottle brushes. When I enquired I was told, “Yeah mate that’ll be the bottle brush bush!” Then there was the parakeet with the red fan shaped tail…you’ve guessed it…the red fan-tailed parakeet, and the ring necked parrot…I could go on. No poncey Latin names here for sure. It’s much the same with place names –those ending in ‘up’ meaning in Aboriginal ‘by water’ then often mixed with English – so Dwellingup is a place to live next to water, or more simply Collie is a shortened version of colliery being a coal mining town. Bridgetown? Yes, of course, but don’t even ask about Mumballup!

Sitting alongside the scenic Preston River, Donnybrook (why isn’t it called Prestonbrook?) is a pretty town with many historic stone buildings, its roads are lined with blossoming apple and cherry trees plus some odd looking metal apples as Donnybrook is central to Western Australia’s apple growing industry. I’d seen a vineyard being called a ‘winery’ before in the States, but here rather quaintly they referred to a cider farm as a ‘Cidery’ Apart from apples, the town is also a centre for the local timber, beef and dairy, with hills clad in vineyards, orchards and vegetable plots. If Australia has a Garden of Eden, this would be it.

The road rolled over hills that became steeper and higher as I ventured south, pushed along by an occasional tailwind, making Manjimup in time to pitch my tent before darkness fell and even managing to hand-wash a few clothes as I was beginning to smell like the spare PE kit box that lurked in the corner of the gym at my old school. The campsite was outrageously expensive, as is nearly everything in Australia, and by the time I’d eaten a fairly mediocre meal at the town’s only pub I was more than forty quid worse off. At the pub I fell into conversation with a friendly but rather large regular who looked as if his idea of a full body workout would be to drink standing upright, and he told me more of the economic miracle that has resulted in such inflated prices. The Chinese seem to have an insatiable appetite for Australian coal, minerals and gold, and so long as demand rises, so do prices. Even more of a miracle was that Australia’s finances were until recently run by two gents by the names of Mr Abbott and Mr Costello.

Australia West
88 miles, 14 mph average20 Sept 11Day 5
Highway 1: Manjimup - Walpole

I was woken early by a bird making a sound like that you’d get from an old medium wave radio if you turned the tuning dial up and down too quickly. I’ve no idea what kind of bird it was, the great Australian tuner bird perhaps, but it was bloody noisy.

I continued south east on a rollercoaster of a road to the vicinity of the Shannon River and Mount Frankland National Parks amidst cool forests of stately karri trees between which grew ferns, broom and heather along with a multitude of plants unique to Australia. The forests stretched away into the distant hills for the entirety of the day’s journey with not even a single house for sixty miles.

I was still on Highway 1- the main route (the only route) from west to east Australia via the south coast, and would be for the next thousand or so miles, but compared to European roads it was like a quiet country B road. In my drifting idyll, I roughly calculated that one car passed in either direction on average every three minutes.

At Walpole I caught my first glimpse of the mighty Southern Ocean . I’d been collecting visits to the world's great oceans, dipping my wheels as I circumnavigated the globe and this now left only the Arctic Ocean to have bagged all five. The Bibulman track (another of Australia’s epic bush walks) led me to the water’s edge and a place to pitch my tent in the bush out of the wind.

Australia West
90 miles, 15 mph average21 Sept 11Day 6
Highway 1: Walpole - Albany

A few kilometres east, and again through torrents of rain, I sought out the rare tingle trees of the Valley of the Giants. ‘Sought out’ meaning heaving 6km up a near vertical track. So delicately balanced is the eco-system in which these trees survive that visitors are required to climb elevated walkways to view them to avoid interfering with the breakdown of organic matter and nutrients in the soil at their bases. The trees are amazing, up to 80 feet high and some over 400 years old, with vertigo inducing walkways that made the whole scene look like the set of ‘I’m a celebrity, Get me Out of Here’! I wasn’t quite ready for a bush tucker trial, although the creeks around here are full of delicious marron – fresh water crayfish.

At least the frogs were enjoying the rain and their constant croaking accompanied me all the way to Denmark, a town with an unsurprisingly Scandinavian feel although its pitched roofed houses were originally occupied by Norwegian lumberjacks, who presumably though the place too hot and sunny to name it after their motherland, so named it after their balmy Danish neighbour instead.

Dutch traders had been here first though, three hundred years ago, and it wasn’t until the mid 1800's that colonisation really began, a century later than the Eastern Australian coast, with the British settlers almost eradicating the indigenous Nyoongar Aborigines within a decade. Its fair to say that the majority of this loss was down to the innocent introduction of diseases to which the Aborigines had no resistance (diphtheria caught from second-hand blankets handed out by well meaning missionaries, being the principal killer), but in the early days it wasn’t technically illegal to kill an Aboriginal and until as recently as the 1970's segregation existed with Aborigines having no civic rights. In 1935 Daisy Bates, an Irish woman who lived amongst and studied local tribes, sympathetically observed 'The Australian native can withstand all the reserves of nature, fiendish droughts and sweeping floods, horrors of thirst and enforced starvation - but he cannot withstand civilisation'.

Perhaps the most poignant example of their misguided treatment was a social experiment that became known as the Stolen Generations. This was an attempt by government to extract children from their aboriginal families in order to give them 'a better life'. Between 1910 and 1960 approximately one in five children were separated from their parents and sent to foster homes or what basically amounted to orphanages. Contact with their parents was severed and siblings often separated and sent to different states, with the imaginable catastrophic results. You might wonder how this could be permitted from a legal perspective. The answer is simple enough as until the 1960's, Aborigines didn’t have legal custody of their own children. The State did. The book and film Rabbit Proof Fence illustrates one such story of abuse movingly.

The road that had been a mix of gut busting climbs and free-wheeling descents became undulating, then became gently rolling and eventually petered out into a series of small sweeps as I headed east into the plains. Rich with dairy, sheep and even alpaca in fields that could have been in England with only the spreading chestnut tree substituted for a giant eucalyptus and the blackbird’s morning song replaced with the mocking chirp of the kookaburra.

Australia West
120 miles, 15 mph average22 Sept 11Day 7
Highway 1: Albany - Jerramungup

Albany is a town of two tales: the stately, colonial old quarter and its rampant offspring to the north, a new, hectic sprawl of malls and fast food joints, which looks like almost every town in the USA. I’d seen many similarities with the States, which I guess is only to be expected in such a young and rapidly developing country. Established shortly before Perth, Albany is the oldest European settlement in the state is now a bustling commercial centre and even has its own version of the Sydney Opera House, looking as though it had been designed by Darth Vader’s architect. This is a place that’s seen ‘some weather’ (today being no exception) and the stormy violence of whaling all along its rugged coastline. Whales are still a part of the Albany experience, but these days as seen through the camera lens rather than at the business end of a harpoon.

The sea was too wild to go whale watching so I replenished my provisions, laughing to myself as I loaded a fruit loaf the size of a house brick into my panniers. Weighing in at 800grammes it made a mockery of the time I’d spent at home meticulously selecting each item of kit based on its efficiency to weight ratio. It was certainly efficient fuel though, as sweet as Christmas cake and more-ish as crack cocaine.

It was a long and lonely haul that joined the only two towns for 120 miles, but a gentle breeze patted me on the back as I rode through dense bushland, quite eerie in those places scarred by bushfires, but with occasional glimpses of the jagged peaks of the Sterling Range to the north, and the one roadhouse on the route at about the halfway mark being the only sign of ‘civilisation’.

The continuing rain was making me tetchy, but one of the benefits of the rains through the Hassell National Park were the wonderful bush wildflowers (-1- -2- -3- -4- -5- -6- -7-) that had now come into bloom, lighting up the roadside in blazes of yellow, orange, red and indigo blue. There are thousands of varieties all laid out like a slightly unkempt garden rockery, many of those species native only to this part of Western Australia.

The Jerramungup Motel was typical of many a small town pub with basic rooms at the back. A new mine had recently opened a hundred or so miles away and this place was accommodating the overspill of workers that couldn’t get digs any closer. It was a rough old gaff and a bit like stepping back thirty years in time to a place where beer used to be served in dimpled jugs and there was a public bar for the working man and a lounge for the posh folk. I chose the lounge and settled at a Formica table, awkwardly trying to rebalance my rusty chair. It was the kind of place you might expect a sign on the door saying ‘No Abbos, No Sheilas and No Poofters’. Such as sign would have been redundant anyway as there were no indigenous tribesmen, no women, and if there had been anyone there described in these parts as being ‘good with colours’, then they were hiding it well. Instead there was a sign saying that shirts must be worn and no thongs. The all-male-real-man clientele didn’t look the kind of guys that would wear thongs, but then it was pointed out to me that this was Australian for flip flops. The all-male-real-man clientele didn’t look the kind of guys that would wear flip flops either.

Beer is only served in half pints in these mining areas. So I sat there amongst some of world’s toughest frontiersmen all drinking beer from dinky little dimpled glasses with handles on the side. There is a strict enforcement of sobriety for the mineworkers who are regularly breathalysed. The men spoke in gruff voices about explosives and heavy plant, conversation flowed easily and I chatted with a farmer whose land extended for a mere 17,000 acres (a smallholding by Australian standards). I was doing my best of upholding our reputation as whinging poms, complaining about the rain but his eyes lit up when I told him of a trickle of water I’d crossed earlier in the day. It had been nothing but a dry river bed for the past 24 months and the likelihood of ruinous drought was ever present. Not just frogs then that enjoy rain.

Australia West
75 miles, 13 mph average23 Sept 11Day 8
Highway 1: Jerramungup - Ravensthorpe

The road was lonely again but any locals or truckies that passed gave a friendly wave as if to ask if I was OK, buoying my spirits as I rode first through fields of wheat and blue gum plantations, then back out into the bush. At one point a trucker I’d spoken to the previous night pulled over for a chat and offered me a half day’s work – it was AUS$100 worth too but that time lost would have left me too far behind schedule to make the next town.

With the astronomical costs in Australia, perhaps I should have taken him up on his offer. Whilst world stock markets continued to leap about in a state or turmoil, I’d been monitoring the Kit Kat index. Back in Perth I was shocked to pay nearly AUS$2, but further out in the sticks the index continued to climb, peaking at a colossal AUS$3.30 – that’s about £2.35 at home. It was for the four finger bar mind.

Australia West
128 miles, 13 mph average24 Sept 11Day 9
Highway 1: Ravensthorpe - Esperance

As most days I was sharing the road with the massive three-wagon road trains that created such a rush of wind when they approached, that I had to develop a trick like duck-diving a surfboard through a large wave to stop the blast shoving me off the road. When they passed in the same direction, the driver would move right over to the oncoming lane but even then I’d get sucked along in the slipstream, watching out for the third trailer that wagged away disconcertingly at the rear. Eventually I took to moving over to the oncoming lane when I saw one of the juggernauts approach in my mirror, at least that way they wouldn’t have to swerve and I could hop onto the gravel if anything came toward me.

I had a stiff headwind but that didn’t bother me because the sun was at last shining. God was in his heaven, butterflies kissed and flirted with the wildflowers and I had a family sized bag of liquorice allsorts in my handlebar bag. Not all was well in the world though. Hard to imagine that the millions of square miles of hardy-looking impenetrable bushland that cover the south western corner are under threat. Under threat from a pernicious alien predator. The 50 million years of evolution and further isolation and protection from a thousand miles of desert to the east and north, that gave rise so such a diverse and unique biosphere, have left if defenceless against attack. No more so was this in evidence than on the road into Esperance where non-native grasses and wheat plants had seeded themselves into the margins of the bush, choking the lower scrub and now threatening even the taller trees. This change hasn’t been wrought over millennia but in just the last 50 years. It’s only a matter of time before some happy camper shoves a muddy tent peg contaminated with bramble seed into the ground before the place is over-run. It’s already happened in the south east of Australia. In just a few more generations the fauna could replicate that of Southern Europe. The place will be populated by the Chinese by then anyway as they’ll have run out of space and be the only ones who can afford to live here!

Australia West
57 miles, 15 mph average25 Sept 11Day 10
Esperance - Cape Arid

The coast was lined with a fringe of tall Norfolk Island pine. Not a native to this region, but planted by French mariners to provide a living parts depot for broken masts. They soon exhausted the seal stocks and having seen nothing of value inland, moved on leaving the territory to be claimed by the Brits. The French had named the bay after their ship, ‘L’Esperance’, The Hopeful, but having seen what they had given up I’m inclined to think The Hopeless more apt.

Western Australia's Goldrush of the 1890s saw Esperance rise to prominence as a commercial port with strong sea links to the eastern states at a time when there was no road or rail connection between east and west. Back then Esperance served as the transit point for the thousands of gold diggers, but in time, production of Western Australia's Goldfields declined, first rail and then road links were completed, and Esperance's importance as a port dwindled.

Australia has beyond doubt the world’s finest beaches, and Australians themselves vote Esperance’s to be the pick of the bunch. Nowhere else on earth can you see kangaroos sunbathing on white crystalline sand. They don’t really sunbathe, but in dry weather come to suck up rainwater that drains down from the land weeks later and is filtered by the sands.

Australia West
132 miles, 12 mph average26 Sept 11Day 11
Cape Arid - Balladonia

Cape Arid was hardly living up to its name, with a cool misty start. The beautiful Cape is composed of sandy beaches and rocky headlands to the south with low granite hills above. It’s a wildlife park and an important site for the bird life being home to over 160 species of birds including some that are endangered and restricted including Western Ground Parrot, Australasian Bittern, Carnaby's Cockatoo and Cape Barren Geese.

I’d been asking around in Esperance about the dirt road leading north to Balladonia but only received conflicting reports, and the situation was no better in the tiny hamlet of Conningup that is the last settlement for 200km. No one had driven it for years even though it cuts out 100 km off the drive from Esperance to the Nullarbor. So I surrendered to the fates, loaded up with supplies including 8 litres of water and set off. The early miles of well graded grit were quick enough, but the road, known ominously simply as ‘The Track’ soon became less distinct with rocky sections and terrible corrugations that beat and rattled me as I rode along. I wasn’t daunted by the distance, but as time wore on and having only seen two vehicles all day, stories of souls lost in the outback played on my mind. I kept thinking that a ripped tyre, a broken chain or buckled wheel could leave me stranded and in some serious danger. There had been no phone reception since leaving Conningup, and as my progress slowed over the deteriorating track I realised that 8 litres of water was nowhere near enough.

The only way of navigating was by the sun and tracking distance on my bike’s computer. At 124 miles I should have emerged on the main highway, but by 126 it still wasn’t there. By 128 I was beginning to panic, with a mouth dry as dust and still no sign of any human habitation or influence that might have indicated I was getting closer to civilisation. This was no place for a white-faced city-boy. I could hear the rescue teams now, talking over my desiccated body, “Bloody idiot! Didn’t he read the signs?”, or worse still my charred remains possibly never found having been caught in a raging bushfire. Australians like saying “Bloody idiot!”

Finally I spotted a telegraph pole and within the next painfully slow mile I was back on the asphalt, and never have I been so glad to see a petrol station, and no petrol station attendant has ever looked so surprised than the one that saw me emerge from the darkness of the track covered in red dust, stagger to his fridge and proceed to down a large bottle of water before saying a word. When I explained myself, he simply said, “Bloody idiot!”

Australia West
159 miles, 16 mph average27 Sept 11Day 12
Eyre Highway: Balladonia - Cocklebiddy

As a barely populated dot at the western edge of the desert, Balladonia doesn’t appear to offer much of interest but it holds a curious claim to fame being the crash landing site of the Skylab space station in 1979. With typical Aussie humour the local council issued NASA with a littering fine, and were rewarded with a personal apology by telephone from President Carter himself.

So, looking out for space debris I headed down Australia's longest straightest road - all 146.6 kilometres of it. For those of us who are metrically challenged its more common name is the "90 Mile Straight", and there’s a big signpost just in case you hadn’t noticed not changing directions for a while and folk (usually the ‘grey nomads’ – oldies that have retired and are travelling about in campervans) like to stop to have their photo taken by the sign.

The sign clearly declares it to be the longest straight road in Australia, but a late middle aged couple next to me kept calling it the longest in the world. Now if you’re going to cycle down such a road you’re likely to do some research and I’d found out that there's a road in North Dakota that’s a bit longer and one in Saudi Arabia that's 160 miles long. Curious as to why it’s referred to in imperial distance rather than metric, indicating there must have been a change at some point, I asked another couple of retirees, thinking the first couple too dim.

“Oh, that was to keep us up with America” said Mrs Thick, her husband nodding sagely alongside.
Time to move onto couple number three.

“So where you from then, mate?” he asked, having seen the bike festooned with my Union Jack, my cycling shirt emblazoned also in the red white & blue proclaiming ‘Great Britain’ in bold caps, and probably having heard my accent speaking to the others. A fine bunch then, as intellectually challenged as daytime TV and with less brains than Kurt Cobain's garage wall!

Australia West
179 miles, 19 mph average28 Sept 11Day 13
Eyre Highway: Cocklebiddy - Eucla

This morning’s wake-up call was the flapping of the tent in a stiff westerly wind. This was the wind I’d been waiting for, reliable across the Nullarbor in springtime, and so I was up like a dingo up a didgeridoo and got pushed along all day, watching the almost imperceptible changes in landscape go by as the desert approached. The miles racked up rapidly with my fastest ever century coming in at five hours and nineteen minutes.

The Nullarbor Plain stretches halfway across Western Australia and into Southern Australia linked by just one road - The Eyre Highway. Edward John Eyre, together with his Aboriginal companion Wylie, was the first European to traverse the coastline of the Great Australian Bight and the Nullarbor by land in 1840-1841, on an almost 2000 mile journey. He had originally led the expedition with John Baxter and three Aborigines, but two of the Aborigines killed Baxter and left with most of the supplies, leaving Eyre and Wylie only able to survive when spotted and rescued by a French whaling ship.

The wind that helped me so nicely all day became a curse after I decided to make the most of it and push on to the next roadhouse, leaving me wrestling with my tent after dark and scrabbling round for rocks to hold it down and hammer the pegs into the stony ground. Against advice to the contrary I left my shoes and socks outside of the tent overnight as I couldn’t bear to be in their company any more. I figured that any snake or spider stupid enough to want to venture too close to those repulsive stinkers would be too stupid to want to bite me.

Australia West
130 miles, 17 mph average29 Sept 11Day 14
Eyre Highway: Eucla - Nullarbor

Many people (including plenty of native Aussies) assume that Nullarbor is an Aboriginal term but it’s a corruption of the Latin meaning treeless. In fact it’s only a small part of the eastern end of the plain that’s treeless, but most regard the area between Norseman and Ceduna (the only towns) to be the Nullarbor. For thousands of square kilometres the land is as flat as 'roo under a road-train and relentlessly barren. Just glowing red soil, tussocks of bluebush, clumps of spiniflex and scattered ochre rocks.

After the buzzing metropolis of Eucla (population 86), Border Village (population 0) seemed a little quiet. It turns out that it’s not a village at all, and only serves as a quarantine point between South Australia and Western Australia, and a place to lose an hour and a half of your life entering a new time zone. The quarantine is rigorously enforced to prevent non-native species being imported, and just after the checkpoint a car waved me down and passed me a bag of fruit that they wouldn’t have been able to cross into WA with.

At home I'm used to sharing every square mile of space with about 700 other people, so the previous summer I relished my times exploring the sleepy backwaters of the USA where the population is only one tenth as dense, but in the whole of Australia there are just six people per square mile. Consider then if you discounted the five largest cities this number would fall to less than one human for every ten square miles.
If you could define the middle of nowhere this could be it. More than a thousand miles to the nearest city east or west, to my south lay Antarctica and to my north just one railway line and not a single paved road or habitation for nearly two thousand miles. Take the Sahara, the Gobi Desert and Outer Mongolia added together and they would still be smaller and have more people in than the Australian Outback, making this least populated place on earth either side of the two Poles. Along the 1250 kilometres of road between Norseman and Ceduna live less than the number of pupils in an average English primary school, and of these 90% are at the road’s distal ends. Isolation and solitude defined.

At the roadhouse campsite I was pitching my tent when the couple in the caravan next door struck up a conversation with me. After the usual pleasantries and listening to him complain about what a long drive it was, he said,

“How do ya manage with the boredom mate? I mean there’s just nothing out here”

“Well”, I replied. “On the bike I can feel the rush of the wind on my face, hear the birds singing their morning chorus and smell the wild flowers. I see the emu and the kangaroo because they don’t see me first. I shiver with the cool of the early morning dew, and feel the power of the sun on my back in the middle of the day. And when that same sun sets in the western sky, I can truly say I have felt the earth move under my wheels”

He looked at me, silent and slightly out of focus for just a moment, turned to his wife and said,

“Come on Mavis, ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire?’ is on the cable in a minute”

Australia West
108 miles, 14 mph average30 Sept 11Day 15
Eyre Highway: Nullarbor Motel - Nundroo

I’d been diverting off the road quite frequently as this stretch runs close to the edge of the Australian Bight, the towering cliffs that plunge vertically into the roaring Southern Ocean below. There was one diversion that I’d been looking forward to more than any – that at the Head of the Bight. Its here that huge Right Whales come to nurse their calves before heading south to Antarctica for their summer hols. I’ve seen some incredible sights on my travels, but nothing has brought a lump to my throat so swiftly as this. It’s by far the most serene and beautiful thing I have ever had the privilege to witness.

I think the solitude was starting to get to me as by the time a few rolling hills came near the restricted Aboriginal lands of Yalata (M1 Yalata1), I’d grown bored of talking to myself and struck up a conversation with my invisible dog. Toto noticed that we weren’t in Kansas anymore, and to save us both from going mad we composed a little ditty.

We’re crossing the Nullarbor
For better or worse
Some say it’s a blessing
Some say it’s a curse.
And so here’s the end
Of this little verse
It isn’t too long
In fact it’s quite terse.
In space no-one can hear you scream. On the Nullarbor no-one can hear you sing.

Australia West
101 miles, 13 mph average1 Oct 11Day 16
Eyre Highway: Nundroo - Ceduna

‘Nothin’ to do in Nundroo’ went the jingle I’d composed for the local tourist board, although really ‘nothing’ was a bit of an exaggeration. It wasn’t that lively. The previous evening I’d held court with the entire populace of the town, and the four of them asked intelligent and insightful questions whilst I regaled them with tales of derring-do.

'Crossing the Nullarbor' for many Australians, is a quintessential experience of the Australian Outback; you can even buy stickers declaring 'I crossed the Nullarbor', and these can be seen on vehicles of varying quality or capacity for long distance travel. Vintage cars and motor bikes passed as well as convoys of those grey nomads, all giving me the thumbs-up, then driving off laughing, probably shaking their heads saying “Nutter”.

Crossing on a bicycle was proving to be another type of experience altogether. Since the road was paved in 1976, each year during the season (September & October or March & April – summer being too hot and winter too cold), a small number of cyclists set out to conquer one of the world’s great wilderness roads. Less than half are solo and unsupported and of those less than half again make it. So what’s so difficult for a ride not much further than Lands End to John O’Groats? Well, consider the same journey with the only possibility of food and rest spaced at an average of the same distance between Bristol and London. You then need to carry enough water and food for at least 24 hours, just in case you miss the roadhouse opening hours. There are no grocery shops, no pharmacy, no mains water or mains electricity. Apart from a couple of 10km windows, the whole 1250km is bereft of mobile phone signal. If you can’t fix a broken bike, you’ll be thumbing a lift home, if you can’t ride over 200km in a day, you’ll have to be able to fend for yourself in the outback. You’ll need to know which snakes are poisonous (as eight out of ten of the world’s deadliest live in Australia), and how to treat the venomous bite of a whole host of creepy crawlies like the trap door spider that hides away underground, pops out and fires a noxious harpoon at its unwitting victim.

Contrary to my poetic repose, the Nullarbor was beginning to get to me. Heat, cold, wind and rain were all taking their toll, but perhaps worst of all was the distances between stops, even the chance to simply sit down at a layby with a picnic table would only present every 100km or so if I was lucky, and then I’d be pressured by the thought of arriving at the next roadhouse after closing time. Stopping would only allow a swarm of black flies to plague me anyway. I longed for a climb, if only to see a horizon more than a mile distant, and prayed for that horizon to be different from that which inevitably came. More scrub, more bush, more plains, more red-brown earth. Once part of the ocean floor, it’s a piece of limestone covering 200,000 square kilometers up to 300 meters deep, making it the world’s largest patio slab. Mile after mile of it, baking under the antipodean sun by day, then freezing cold at night. Even Eyre himself described the Plain as "a hideous anomaly, a blot on the face of Nature, the sort of place one gets into in bad dreams".

Apart from a few brief exchanges at campsites, I’d been alone all week. The experience certainly focused my mind on what social beings humans are. To be denied communication even by the proxy of a text message, email, radio or TV for such a relatively short space of time had taught me why solitary confinement was used to such great effect in the Second World War. Me and Toto were going bonkers!

Back in Der Kooler, the Kommandant had other plans turning the wind against me, and trying to foil our own great escape. By Penong the first signs of habitation came with a few broken down fences and ruined farm buildings of those who had tried and failed to tame the Nullarbor. Finally the end came into sight. At first houses, then a village shop and wonder of wonders a pub. I’d made it. This had been my Everest, my cross Channel swim, my Marathon Des Sables. I’d done it in six days, which is no kind of record but none too shabby all the same. I was shabby it’s true. Dirty, aching, hungry and tired too, but all I really wanted to do was speak to people.

Australia West
82 miles, 13 mph average2 Oct 11Day 17
Flinders Highway: Ceduna - Streaky Bay

The vast, straw-coloured Eyre Peninsula is big-sky country, and its coast is renowned for some of the world's finest seafood. The peninsula’s wide, triangular shape points south between Spencer Gulf and the Great Australian Bight, engulfing golden beaches backed by rugged cliffs. The coastline along the peninsula is pocked with sheltered bays and pleasant little port towns, popular as summer holiday and recreational fishing spots. Along the spectacular, wild western side are important breeding grounds for the Southern Right Whale, the Australian sea lion and the great white shark – the scariest scenes in the film Jaws were shot here. Having said that, only one in a hundred shark species attack people, but they can smell one part blood in a million of water and really can sense fear, but male sharks have no penis. Which probably explains a lot.

The sharks weren’t the problem however. The temperature was warming up nicely now with summer just around the corner, that ocean was looking tempting, but I'd been warned about the box jellyfish - the most toxic creature on earth. Quite why Mother Nature decided to equip these beasties with enough venom to kill ten men in one sitting is a mystery to me. At least it’s a quick death as the poison attacks the nervous system, shutting down the vital systems within three minutes. Hard to avoid too being transparent but perhaps not as bad as its tiny almost invisible cousin the carukia barnesi, whose sting results in such a massive release of nor-adrenaline in its victims that they literally panic to death.

Australia West
87 miles, 14 mph average3 Oct 11Day 18
Flinders Highway: Streaky Bay - Elliston

As I’ve said, Australia is the world's oldest, flattest, driest inhabited continent, and its separation from the Pangean super-continent, fifty million years ago, explains how its fauna and flora have evolved so differently from that found elsewhere on earth. Take the kangaroo for example. Everybody knows what one looks like, but even then I was shocked when I saw my first wild one back on the Munda Biddi Trail. It’s just so different to any other living thing. How unsettled then would the early settlers have been by the appearance of a creature they described as a giant dog with the eyes of a deer, nose of a hare, and a gerbil's feet?

Scientists know that kangaroos are efficiently green, reusing cycling 70% of their bouncy energy when hopping along at 20mph they can easily outpace a touring cyclist, and even their acetate farts are recycled for energy like a crazy marsupial turbo-afterburner! The boffins are now investigating using kangaroo gut bacteria to produce wind-free cows as cow-gas represents 18% of global greenhouse gas production. I love the way the kangaroo acquired its name too. Legend has it that a British explorer asked some Aborigines what a kangaroo was called. He asked in English of course and the local fellas just looked blankly at each other saying “Kangaroo”, meaning “I don’t understand what he’s saying!”

Similarly odd is the koala, did you know that most female koalas are bisexual, and have two vaginas? But spare a thought for the unfortunate female echidna (a hedgehog style marsupial) that doesn’t have one at all. A vagina that is, not a koala.

Australia West
106 miles, 14 mph average4 Oct 11Day 19
Elliston - Cleve

Bob and Jan were in the roadhouse when I arrived for my second breakfast. I knew they were called Bob and Jan because it was written on the back of their caravan which they’d named ‘Dunworkin’’, and added lead effect windows to make it as twee as a Cotswold coffee shop. They were taking the short hop 3000 km down from New South Wales where they’d been to see some sheep. There must be some pretty special sheep up there. This was more of a weekend jaunt for them as they’d spent the previous four years on an epic journey around Australia on just about every paved road possible. They had never ventured outside the country and couldn’t see any good reason to do so.

This was typical of the happy go lucky Aussie though. More interested in what I might have seen in Australia than anywhere else in the world. Australia is isolated, its true, and most Aussies are great, but couldn’t really give an emu poo what happens elsewhere. Its part of the charm. Take for example the news on TV that night, reported in such a light hearted style because it concerned events overseas which, because of their remoteness, seem to have little impact on home life.

“Today in Kabul a bomb exploded killing 151 civilians. Now back to the studio with you Jonno. How’s the surf lookin’ for the weekend mate?”

The ride across the Eyre Peninsula offered a subtle change from the conveyor belt roads of repetitious arable farmland I’d experienced since leaving the Nullarbor, with a few gentle climbs and bends in the road. There was even a small wedge shaped hill, called…yup…Mount Wedge. You know you’re bored when farmer’s letter boxes start looking interesting.

I’d been counting on a ferry to take me across the Spencer Gulf to the Yorke Peninsula, but the boat was out of commission and faced with a dull three day ride via Port Augusta (know locally as Port Distgust-ya) and three days less to enjoy Adelaide, I hopped on the bus to Snowtown (where it's never snowed) the next day so I only had an extra 60km to ride to what would have been my ferry’s destination of Wallaroo.

Australia West
122 miles, 14 mph average6 Oct 11Day 20
Snowtown - Owen

Inky black rain clouds clung to the rolling green hills, whilst a line of wind turbines let me know I’d reached the crest of the climb on the pot holed road. I could have been at home, there was even a stone built pump house and a pasty shop. The Yorke Peninsula, was largely settled by Cornish miners when the area drove the regional economy following a copper boom in the 1860s, and the three towns of Moonta, Kadina and Wallaroo are collectively known as 'Little Cornwall'. There's a saying in my English home county of Cornwall that if you see a hole in the ground, there's every chance a Cornishman will be at the bottom of it, so I set out in search of a few kinsmen. An eccentric cottage with the flag of St Piran flying proudly was the abode of Steve & Chris, a father and son duo as off-beat as their home but delighted to show me the place dating back to the very start of the copper boom.

The pub had a rogue’s gallery of the local Aussie rules football teams over the past decades, well populated with names prefixed by Tre, Pol and Pen (by this you’ll know true Cornishmen). Now there’s a game that sorts the men from the boys. The rule book is as thin as the Hell’s Angels’ Highway Code, and you play dressed in tennis shorts and a vest so you can’t hide any girly body armour.

I pushed on believing that being closer to Adelaide and as towns were now just 30 or so miles apart (rather than hundreds), a room for the night would be easy to find. I made Owen as darkness fell and to be given a less than warm welcome at the pub, no rooms at the inn and not even a campsite. An air of menace hung over the place. Owen could have been described as a ghost town except that all the ghosts had been too frightened to stay. I found a clearing in the bush on the outskirts of town to camp, prayed that no one had seen me and eventually fell asleep to the sound of barking dogs and my knees knocking.

Australia West
84 miles, 14 mph average7 Oct 11Day 21
Owen to Adelaide

For four decades following the First World War, priggish Puritanism ruled in Australia. Homosexuality and pornography were illegal, and even books which merely challenged convention or provoked alternative thought such as The Catcher in the Rye, Animal Farm and Brave New World were banned. Even an edition entitled Childbirth Without Pain, that explained where babies came from was considered too racy. It was in Adelaide that what is considered today as enlightenment came to the continent, when in 1967 Don Dunstan was elected Labour Premier, sweeping aside the old rules and establishing Adelaide as a haven for artists and intellectuals.

You only need prick the surface of the quiet achiever of Australian cities to tap into its hedonistic vein. This epicurean playground boasts world-renown major events, spanning the cultured and cerebral, artistic and gastronomic, petrol-headed and sports-crazed. The pleasure-seeking spirit flows from the varied cuisines and magnificent wines through to the vibrant live music scene and numerous galas that celebrate a thriving arts community, whilst during the innovative Adelaide Fringe Festival, the artistic flair of this historically progressive city truly emerges.

The traditional owners of the Adelaide area are the Kaurna people, whose territory extends south towards Cape Jervis and north towards Port Wakefield. Early European colonists (free settlers) began to arrive in 1836, creating a lush, European-style capital, even more so after the Second World War when Australia needed to increase its population, having narrowly avoided invasion by the Japanese. The powers that be decided that they only wanted white European's to enjoy their blessed land and the blatantly racist White Australia Policy was instigated. So selective was this plan that one entrance test required proof of literacy in the chosen European language of the local authority's choice. Legend has it that one bigoted official tested a potential candidate he didn’t like the look of in Scottish Gaelic.

With more than 2000 miles under my tyres, and yet only a tiny corner of this massive continent explored, I paused to reflect on what had been an epic ride. Landscapes like no other, unique fauna and flora, and roads emptier than I witnessed anywhere else before.

Where else in the world would a wombat wander out in front of you? Where else in the world could someone who having passed you on a road 500 miles away, recognise you, come over and say “G’day”?

A land still largely untouched, yet under constant threat from ‘civilisation’. A land beaten and battered by ‘some weather’, and populated by the toughest gentlest people you’ll find anywhere.

This time it was Toto’s turn to make up a slogan for the tourist board; “Australia – it’s bigger than Kansas” It’s the biggest place I know. So big it has a village atmosphere wherever you go.

I barely recognised myself that night, a stone lighter, hair bleached, skin weathered.

“Read the mirror, count the lines
The battle-scars of all the good times”

G’day to ya Australia! Thanks, no worries.

© 2008 site by mjrcreative
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