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.

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.

Burra or bust

“Screw the plan Horse” I said as I threw a stack of maps on the table. He’d just pushed back after devouring a steak bigger than his head. With a nonchalant “How so?” he reached for a glass of the black stuff and a toothpick.

All day long we’d talked about what would be required to catch up on time lost. We both wanted to get up north east, way beyond the Burra. Where the maps turn from green to rust orange. That had to be the boundary where wild things are.

We were way behind and the elements were testing. Today’s headwind was only a precursor of what we could expect. We sat well into the night. warming in the Blumberg hotel considering our options.

Beyond vineyards

Cool eddy’s spun gum leaves Iike marionettes down Shannon street as we headed out on trail. We’re following the Mawson through back roads and forests to the Barossa.

It was all familiar green, but not. Everywhere mobs of ‘Roo crossed trails as we slowly crawled our way up into the chill blast. Before eventually bursting through the saddle just east of Pewsey Vale Peak, then down down down to the warmth of the valley floor.

After a feed of eclairs from die Barossa wurst haus bakery so large they had their own gravitational pull, we pushed on for remainder to Kapunda.

Earthy roads

No seal, all is red, red dirt, red dust and red rain. A rustic blusher that penetrates the very core. Old ground, ground into the very DNA of every Australian. A quintessential genome.

We peered into the high contrast landscape of a setting sun and entered the beautiful Kapunda. Late, loved, but worth it.

Onward to Burra

Burra was still a day away and the wind was worse than previous. Horse hatched a plan. We’d go off trail and direct to our destination. ‘Better to have the wind at our rear shoulder than our front’. He said. Wise words from the road.

We collapsed within the lee of the Marrabel pub mid morning. A wind weather old grey man yelled across the tinder burnt stock yards that ‘the pub don’t open till eleven’. I smirked and yelled back ‘bugger’, knowing full well my next beer wouldn’t be served here.

Pushing on.

Seal turned to stone, then red dirt. The wind, it never changed. We made good to Waterloo and rest. Now in old Tom Kruse country we were officially in the ‘back of beyond’ (or so the movie goes).

One more wind weathering push and we made the big B’ and beer. Now for a place to stay. Well that would have to be the Royal exchange in Burra heights. Now there is a story…

Todays top track: Led Zepplin – Black dog

(The Royal exchange really should be ‘Hotel California’)