Life on the road

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Morgan is located at the great serpentine bend of the Murray (or the Tongala). South is the sea, whereas east traces the river back to its origins, through many varied tributaries such as the Darling and Culgoa deep into the steaming heart of Queensland.

We crossed that river early, me leaning shoulders slumped over my handlebars. Gazing ahead into the still cool dawn, as a million yellow-orange suns flash through drifting wattle and gum. East, how much I want to ride east.

Then with a quiet shudder the ferryman made his landing and my dreamtime ended (for now). “Com’on” said Horse. He led us south for the sea, I reluctantly followed.

As we rode, we knew it was there, the river. Trapped within its scoured canyon walls, it’s flat water slowly flowing south like diesel oil. We were above and beyond it, riding the table lands and tracing its course as best we could. The endless straight and dusty dawn coloured back roads that eventually evolved into rolling ‘dips’ and ‘crests’ south of Swan reach.

It was good ground. A warm and an endless (120km) kind of day that’s best ridden together alone. Lost within your own playlist, apart from the occasional bellow from Horse, “car back!”

Are we not just men?

These expansive rides frees the mind to wander untethered, just like old man river trying to find its way to the sea. As we never saw another adventure cyclist that day, or any day on our entire tour, I pondered the question “how should my particular approach to touring be defined?”

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We live in an age where the mamil dominates recreational bicycling and I have to acknowledge that ‘yes’ I am guilty by gender, not choice. We have all come to witness the exploding gaggles of  ‘middle aged men in lycra’, strapped as they are onto the latest, light weightiest carbon compound rocket racers. Choking the Saturday morning byways and bakeries in search of the perfect cinnamon latte.

This isn’t me. I don’t gaggle and I sure as shit don’t do lycra.  So I give thanks to mother nature in her good wisdom for allowing mamilian speciation.

Along with the road warriors, there are now also the ‘Bikepackers’, which (according to the Kennet brothers statistics from Tour Aotearoa 2018) are dominated by old mountain biking blokes. These are the grey-hairs who still prefer to chase gravel and grim, but with a good craft beer at the end.

As Bikpacking.com exclaims, ‘Bikepacking evokes the freedom of a multi-day backcountry hike, but with the range and thrill of riding a mountain bike. It’s about exploring places less traveled, both near and far, via singletrack trails, gravel, and abandoned dirt roads, carrying only the minimum of essential gear.’

If there is a tribe then it’s here I trace my ancestry. But for one thing…

Yes I’m a Surly Ogre man (bike and personality type); yes I ride trails and far away places; and yes I’m into the whole minimalist thing (within reason), but what Bikepacking has is what traditional old timey touring has not. And that is a purpose!

Bikepacking has personal reason, a goal, a summit, a trial and a trail to overcome, whereas traditional touring doesn’t. Fundamentally touring is about ‘life on the road’ and it’s as much about your life as it is the people you meet on it.

As Tom Allen recently wrote:

“Touring is about enabling one to practice the art of travel and to live a life on the road”. To which I would add ‘and to meet perfect strangers as soon to be old friends.’

Does any of this really matter?

Not really. I’m more tourer than Bikepacker and maybe that helps me sit more comfortably in the saddle. To know what one isn’t, is as important to me as knowing what one is.

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The Mannum Hotel

We made Mannum by five. Two dust covered men on dust covered bikes. We avoided the campground and slowly rolled into town and the Mannum Hotel. Horse sauntering through the saloon doors to the bar as he peeled off his gloves, “Two pints of the black stuff and some salt and pepper please miss”

Heather looked up from behind the bar with that mischievous grin of hers, as a few locals gathered around us. We had most definitely arrived. It would take more than a day to leave. That’s another story…

Today’s top track: Finley Quaye – Spiritualised

To the river

I awoke to a cold lonely drifter of rain staggering its way up Watt Road, like some lost late night drunk. I rolled over into the dark and slept some more. We procrastinated long that morning. Spending time gwaffing down ‘Cook-O’Burra’ hot dogs and coffee, staring aimlessly out its chill frosted windows.‘Legend.’

It was time to head east.

Take me to the river

East of Burra is nothing. Nothing but eighty odd kilometres of flat dry. The colour of blood iron rubbed raw by wind drawn desert thorn. We were to cross that divide to Morgan and the mighty Murray.

That whipper wind was rising, as we struggled to ride at a list on our narrow shoulder of road. A hideous wrestle as every passing road train threw bad air and forced us to correct and stay within our line. It remained that way until we turned our back to it.

Then we made good speed, crossing that eighty odd kilometre of flat dry in a little over three hours. For the longest stretches of straight, we were powered by nothing more then a good breeze. Like heavy galleons, we sailed with the trade winds, upright to catch the breeze at speeds of well over forty. We grinned in its glory.

While away over. On the horizon massive steels of angular rain continued to plane the landscape smooth. Leaving behind miraged refractions of coloured light shimmering up against ashen grey clouds.

“Look there?” I yelled to Horse as I pointed towards the visceral illusion, “Opals in the sky…let’s do some prospecting!”.

The Murray

We rode on in silence and we rode on until Morgan. Rolling down the river as the squal continued to plane east. And in the gold of late suns glow the ferryman led us across the still waters into the shallows of the silt bar beyond. We pulled up parched and dusty under the bow of an old ‘widow maker’ or silver gum.

That ferryman just told us they’d only had seventeen mils of rain here since Christmas. Seven of that was this day.

Somewhere behind us a Kookaburra laughed in the dry. We didn’t.

Todays top track: Radiohead – High and dry

Into the never never

Dry cured window frames did little to keep the whipper wind from gaining entry into the Mount Bryan East Schoolhouse. Wearily, I gazed out over the flat land with its slender crack of pre-dawn colour blending into a charcoal dust coloured sky.

A forecasted 35 knot front of malcontent eliminating any hope of regaining the Mawson, we chose instead to go east into the never never. It was time to get up.

Horse burst through the door in the dark, “shit, did you see the size of that!” “Of what?” I replied, myself also having not long returned from the outside lav’. He then began to regale me with the story of a spider ‘bigger than the mans fist’. It was precariously positioned under the porcelain lid of that very same… ‘outside lav’. I puckered at the realisation that my intimate privacy had been recently shared with said huntsman. Horse burst into hysterics, as I turned my back and continued to pack. Note to self: ‘take a flaming torch to the ‘lav next time Salmon’.

Tourilie Gorge

The wind built as we turned wheels east into gravel and dust. The road red, leading us up through green rock and gum to the top of the Tourilie Gorge.

Greeted at the summit by the sound of battered yellow tin traffic signs oscillating in the blow, slowly working at their tethered nails intent on regaining their freedom and flight. For us, our freedom lay through the unexpected to the flat red land beyond.

We were prepared for this particular ‘unexpected’ and all the wonderful potential contained within the word ‘lost’, because at last we were making up this trail as we went along.

Our red dusty road was soon replaced with a rock scree and scour trail, steep in its decent to the shadow of the valley floor. We pushed and persuaded ourselves to cross shards of rock sandwiched between narrow flanks of sun smoothed canyon walls, until eventually bursting through to the never never.

Only to discover in the still and sizzling quiet, a mob of wild goat and ‘roo converge on the only water hole in the dry.

The flat lands

Then overland. Tracking animal trails through brush for miles south to distant dust storms we hoped were roads.

Proven right, the whipper wind was now at our tail, we made good time back to the world and Burra. We shared the road with no man that day.

Two dusty men on dust covered bikes. It was over far to soon. In the setting of that days sun we knew the future had to be in crossing the never never.

Quite possibly the best bike ride ridden.

The back of beyond

Early we made our escape. Head throbbing I quietly crept over the creaking floorboards and down that bloody weathered wooden stairwell to the door.

It takes a few minutes to pack the Surly, then Horse replaced the bent coach bolt and screwdriver and we pushed off into the world. Today we needed to get to ‘old Mount Bryan East School house’. But before that, there was Horse’s pilgrimage.

Diesel and dust

Just up the road, way past the Royal Exchange, out before the back of beyond is the most photographed building in all Australia. A blistered house within a blistered landscape, that adorns the cover of ‘Midnight Oil‘s Diesel and dust’.

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Urgency. All was rush with Horse. Pilgrimages don’t come around often and we cycled with new purpose north to the sacred. I kept an appropriate distance.

This wasn’t personal, it was deep, old, indigenous.

Karakia was offered, not to the album, but the message. There is something yet unfound here in the big country. He’ll find it and I’ll follow if invited. Horse is a deep river, he’s the Waikato and he’s a Paoa man.

After a silence, an intended pause, he pushed off north. Leaving a deep imprint in the red earth that I could only follow.

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At the edge of the back of beyond

There’s a line. Hard to describe as you cross to the other side, but you know it intimately when you do. Everyone’s crossing is personal.

For me it’s the sound of colour; green becomes gold, dirt becomes dust, people become real and the colonised becomes the truth. For Horse there is an ever so subtle energy change, “feel that!” I often hear him say. We crossed that line and it was magnificent.

What most don’t realise is that you ride together alone. Sure there is company with another rider, but the conversation is as sparse as the landscape. You consume it all in gulps like you are the only person alive at that one place, at that one time. I never ever inquire after Horse’s experience, and he never does the same in return. These are truely personal journey’s shared.

We crossed the line from the normal to the never never that day. When it did, I finally felt I was in Australia. It’s why we rode so hard north east.

I know dust, I’ve seriously lived dust in Spain, Mexico and Israel. Those spiralling invisible vortices spinning in your tyre trail, the silence, the inevitable and the unexpected. We were there.

‘Roo were everywhere. We surprised them late, so when they bounded off they were close. Majestic and wild at heart.

Big sky Country

Then it revealed itself. A bend, a moment and the land went from tethered hill country to raw wild expanse. The red land fell over the horizon.

It’s rare in my world to see land that just disappears, but it did. Long, wide, red, hard forever ever land.

We had little option but to stop and breathe. It was a horizon we both wanted to cross. For no other reason than it was there.

We crawled on north, hours and hours, until we reached the ‘old Mount Bryan East School house’. Our refuge and respite.

img_5081-4Two dusty men on a dusty road unpacking and making good our day. Horse built a fire in our weathered brick cocoon, the wind was up.

We ate, talked little and drank the good wine Phil’ gifted us. Conversation was left to the lyrics…

‘Out where the river broke, The bloodwood and the desert oak, Holden wrecks and boiling diesels, Steam in forty five degrees…’

A night at the Royal Exchange

At the far end of town you’ll find the old Royal Exchange of Burra heights. Horse had previously called ahead and booked us a room for the night in an attempt to escape the execrable easterly.

The two double doors were held fast by a bent coach bolt and screw-driver. On discovery Horse booming in laughter as he dislodged them and made his entrance. Key in hand (from the twenty something son of the lady proprietor), we clattered our way with panniers, bags and bits up the weathered wooden stairwell, making sure to keep a safe distance from time beaten balustrade. Then meandered through dim hallways to our equally dim room.

The crack of the light socket and the single overhead bulb revealed two crusty creaking single beds and an electrical multi-plug, that flickered orange like the remnant glow of previous occupants last cigarette. The room taller than it was wide, its nearly 200 years of history peeling from its plastered walls. A true classic.

I drew the stiff curtains to lift the gloom. Above the air conditioner scrawled into the dusty glass were the words ‘Hi’ and ‘Help me!’ I burst into hysterics. “Christ, let’s get a beer” said Horse.

A night to remember

It wasn’t quite five pm when we made our way to the pubic bar. Empty, but for me, Horse and the twenty something son of the lady proprietor.

I walked to end of the corrugation and collapsed into one of the few available bar stools. Like the original memory foam of 100,000 previous posteriors, I didn’t so much as sit, but be absorbed into the stools broken vinyl and moist decaying sponge. As we melded as one, it became clear I wasn’t moving far this night. “Two pints of the black stuff please mate.” requested horse.

The regulars began making their way in, throwing cursory glances our way as they placed their orders and stayed a safe distance. Horse and I at one end, and a mob of locals squeezed in at the other. Then they heard us, our accents I mean and it was all on. Especially from one grim bearded beanie wearing bugger in the middle of the mob.

img_2803He took particular delight at ‘taking the piss’ out of Horse’s follical impairment. I removed my buff in brave support, only to receive an explosive crackle from the bearded bugger, as he tugged the top of his beanie and to our surprise, he also shared the same barber as us. The evening had now only just begun.

Damn good buggers

The bearded bugger was called Phil’. Local legend, only he wasn’t a local. Born in Clare, only a few ‘biscuit throws’ from Burra where he’d been living for the last twenty years.

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We all drank pints of the black stuff with a seasoning of salt n’ pepper, and talked absolute rubbish for half the night. The other half was spent talking to Dave the Barman and partner of the ‘Missus’ (the lady proprietor with the twenty something son). Now Dave was a special kind of Legend. He was a former Seargent serving at her Majesty’s pleasure as a British Paratrooper. More to the point, Dave had served in the Falklands war and escaped the United Kingdom shortly after for a new life in the lucky country.

The night wore on and awash with beer, I eventually prised myself from the seat, chin up to keep it all in, we both clattered back up that weathered wooden stairwell under the cover of a single naked sixty watt bulb.

The day faded fast, but not its memories.