“Hell of a place for a flat Horse.” I said. Physically shaking against the bitter squall on Pebbly Range Road. We had been riding west into the grim, a distant low cloud over a furrowed landscape and my equally furrowed brow. He was fumbling for tools in the cold, all I could really do was wait.
For the next few hours everything was useless. The frustration of frozen fingers, wet maps and electronics. With little option we pushed on into stinking sticky red mud. It took us six hours to cover fifty clicks that day and another to reach Adelaide.
The tour… over.
Riding the Mawson was an epic ‘fail’.
We only covered a fifth of the planned trail. But this wasn’t of our own volition, things conspired against us from the outset; delayed flights, lost bikes with the inevitable lost days. But for all it’s frustrations we made the most of what we had, and took from it useful lessons and memorable experiences.
For me it wasn’t until we crossed that threshold from rolling green pasture to the expansive red country beyond that I truely felt I had arrived. It was there that I wanted to go, and it was there that we left the relative known of the Mawson for a land unknown.
Reflecting, I now see it more as reconnoitre than ramble. We were prospectors, surveying the terrain for a future time, a future campaign.
Does that mean I will be going back? Yes and I wonder when that will be…
These old hands. They lay down and dug deep between shoulder and blade; “bloody knotted, you’re all bloody sinew” he coughed. They were a pugilists hands, with thick skin like loose stitched leather, the texture of polished bronze covering a wide ridge of weathered knuckle.
I turned. Hunched beneath a thick great coat and black trilby, with that same expression you’d expect of a man who’d spent a lifetime fighting for a living. Trevor’s trade was boxing. And I’ve meet boxers, Muhammad Ali, Evander Holyfield, Lennox Lewis to name a few. Their eyes all share this caring countenance. They’ve all had to learn through hard fought experience that ‘it is always better to give, than to receive’. Trevor had those eyes.
“You need a good white oil my boy and a hot bath”, he repeated over and over. Obviously concerned about my sinewy self.
He was a former champion here in South Australia, and regaled us with stories from his youth. Not just the fights, but the training, the preparation, the sheer determination to fight in the steaming heat and dust.
Horse asked when he last stepped into the ring. “Boxing… back in the mid 60’s“, then with a wry smile he continued, “but I had my last punch-up just the other week” Legend.
Trevor was eighty years young.
There are legends in every local. Mannum hotel had more than a few.
Like many New Zealanders Sian and Brent made Australia home, having moved from the South Island in the late eighty’s. With them were Maria (married to Don) and Reno, who grew up here or here abouts, both descendants of maverick and optimistic Italian parents.
So for the briefest of times here we all were, gathered around a table on the shores of the Murray, emigrants all. Tracing our genealogy upstream to distant and not so distant tributaries and streams that feeds the great river of the people. And this is such a very long river with the roots of its ancestry flowing back fifty thousand years and then some. The longest permanently inhabited place by one peoples anywhere in the world. We have now become the river.
They didn’t just share their stories, they shared their lives. With no one more endearing than Sian. For her, facing uncertainty is just a bend of that muddy river, it’s an unknown but the current flows strong and ‘it will sure carry her’. Legend.
We said our goodnights but not our goodbyes. We were perfect strangers and now old friends.
Late to rise I slouched in a moth eaten armchair, pitched as it was against the lean of the Mannum hotel veranda. Drinking cheap black coffee through a stained mug, I rubbed my feet for warmth and gazed out at the slow oily passage of the Murray and thought about last nights passage of time. I was hungry.
Every culture has a cuisine and South Australia has the ‘pie floater’. That iconic pastry encased delight, dumped upside down in a green swill of pea soup, garnished with a liberal squirt of ketchup.
Horse was ravenous for one. Me, I was hungry until he described what it was. We trudged off down Randell street – he was on the hunt.
It wasn’t the menu that got me, but the wayward wheezing coming from speaker. I reminded Horse that Tom Waits once said: “a true gentleman is someone that knows how to play the accordion, but chooses not to”. He grinned through my caution and crashed through the double doors.
Inside the endless bellowing didn’t abate. We stood in a faux wood panelled room infused in camphor cured curtains. The waiter appeared. Thin and waxen, wearing taupe chinos, a cream rough wool jumper and apron. He was clearly rushed off his feet with two tables now needing service. “Right” he fumbled and began to list of all the items on the meagre menu that he couldn’t serve us.
“So what do you have?” I retorted, and slowly looking up over his horn rims at me he replied “Pie floater?” Horse grinned, he’d found his prey.
Him satisfied, we made our way back to the Mannum hotel for the days ‘open mic’.
Open mic provides an opportunity for any would be troubadour with a chance to perform in front of a live pub audience. The Mannum is a regular haunt and it didn’t disappoint.
Corralled at the back of the bar, wild horses and wannabe rockers. Sunday’s finest, dressed in weathered denims and Motörhead t’s. Their restrained greying manes held back by Oakley wrap-arounds, as they shuffled hip slinging preloved Gibsons and Fenders awaiting their turn.
And like a microphone loves a musician, one by one they took their turn. Demonstrating they had the minimals in an endless medley of classic seventies rock covers and Joani Mitchell sound-alikes. Pints of the black stuff flowed, Horse and I reuniting with our emigrant family, along with the remaining revellers and sidewalk smokers, we stood arm and shoulder at the Heathers bar.
Then late, late, late in the day, as the mic’ drooped and reeled drunken against the breath of stale beer, smoke and whiskey, it staggered, only having the stamina for one more. Then the Theresa Law band took the stage.
“I used to think I could catch the wind, sail in any direction.
But now I’m drifting around the bend, yeah I’m loosing connection. I’ve got to breathe the wind…”
Mannum Hotel. You are legend.
Todays top track: Theresa Law band – Breath the Wind
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?”
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.
“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.
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…
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!”.
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.
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’.
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.