Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Highway to heaven, and trucking hell

Friday 18th November, 2011 – 1.40pm
Elke's Backpackers, Mitchell Street, Darwin, Northern Territory, Australia 
Total distance: Approx 310km

Even staying put until well after 2pm, the cycle to Batchelor was punishing. Rain came once, but briefly, and for the rest of the afternoon the sun scorched us as we slowly pedalled our way out of the National park along the gradually inclined road. It was sealed though, and we were very grateful for that!

A kangaroo with a little joey poking ou-
Coming out of the eastern side of Litchfield park was a very different experience from riding in from the north west. The eastern roads were far more populous, as they are connected to the main highway to Darwin, so pretty soon we came across camp grounds with little tin roof restaurants where we stopped for a cold drink and a toasted sandwich.

You might very well wonder why on earth we are putting ourselves through this ordeal. Cycling through tropical heat, what on earth for!? It's not easy to sum up in any quick formula, and I think it's true to say that if you genuinely don't understand why we would want to do something like this, you probably never will, not really anyway. But I will try to make sense of it:

Taking yourself out of your home and making yourself cycle from one place to another, supporting yourself
Vegetarianism went right out the window.
as fully as possible along the way, is the best way I know of reminding yourself what is important in life. Food, water, shelter would be the basics. Cycle touring is a fairly low impact but pretty constant form of exercise, and within hours you find your body telling you exactly what food it wants. I started craving meat quite quickly (I have been vegetarian for about three months), certain fruit's make a regular appearance in my craving gland, and yesterday I had an overwhelming desire to drink milk. I'm being told what it is that I need, and when I get hold of it, it hands down beats any posh meal at a restaurant, or even greasy kebabs on the way home from a night out. Yes we sometimes have to wait days for these cravings to get answered, but that only serves to enhance the enjoyment when they finally are. Eating becomes the absolute highlight of the day, and we appreciate it enormously. Cycling around reminds you that you eat food because you need the nutrients and energy from it, and no more. As a special bonus, if you do decide to be really greedy and scoff, let us say, an entire chocolate gateau it doesn't really matter because you're cycling all day and will burn it off in no time at all. Result.

I suppose this idea of having the basics held at a bit of distance can account for much of the appeal that we find in touring. Sleep lands heavy on you after a long day, it's irresistible, and feels enormously refreshing. Water, even when it's warm from being baked in a plastic bottle all day, feels amazing – cold beverages from a fridge are absolutely mind blowing. And the places we visit too, even at popular tourist attractions like Termite Mounds, feel like we've earned them, so we're closer to them than if we'd just arrived by bus after an hours drive.

But I think the best thing about it all, the one that will linger the longest, is the feeling of really being a part of the places we travel through. For better or worse we experienced what Litchfield was like. We felt the heat, the rain, the insects as they nibbled on us. We heard all the noises, in day and at night, and felt the ground beneath us as we slept. And we saw the places between the places, where people don't usually go and that connect the places together and therefore allow us to make more sense of an area – all with 360 degree panoramic views, and the wind in our faces. Although yes, this time that wind was hot, and it knocked us around a bit. It was still really great, and felt like we had gone through enough of a mission to prepare us for the imminent Indo tour.

Cane toads are everywhere
in the NT.
After we had finished our drinks and food we set off again, and were within 10km of Bachelor when we decided to call it a day and stay at a campsite called Banyan on the side of the road. It was run by a friendly Belgian lady called Elke. We set up the tent, cooled down in the swimming pool, did some laundry, and settled down to an evening meal. Unfortunately the choice of food was limited to microwavable pasties and pies – one down from a Ginsters - which puts my theory that cycling making you enjoy all kinds of food to the test – but they were good enough and we supplemented them with fruit and wine, and then passed out with the tent door open, the stars above us, and the night breeze wafting in.

Miraculously the mozzies left us alone that night, and we woke early to catch the cool early hours. Our laundry was still damp, but I was sure we could quickly dry that out during our siesta. Cheese liquefyingly hot days have their advantages.

We reached Bachelor within an hour. It was a small town, and it had that nice friendly small town vibe. It had a model castle on the road into town, and a billboard proudly announced that it had been voted tidiest town in the territory in 82, 86 and 99. Oh yes. We sniffed out the general store and went a bit mad buying food to make up for our poor diet of the days previous, and also making the most of the shop's air conditioning. We stopped for a few minutes on a bench outside to eat some cheese and crackers – because they wouldn't last long on the road – and got chatting to a local about Obama's visit to Darwin, which the local paper announced was happening today. He was friendly, although sceptical about the visit.  “Just us kissing arse to the yanks.” he said, “We don't need to. The American system is fucked, it's just about war now. We've got valuable minerals in the ground that we're digging up, although who's making money out of all our wealth I don't know. We certainly ain't.” It was 7:50am, and he explained he had just finished all the work he had to do for the day – a spot of welding, nothing more. He had a prosthetic leg, and I wandered about asking him about his experiences in the area. But we wanted to cover some k's before the sun picked up, so I settled on a single question, “Hey, do you know any way of stopping these dam flies from buzzing in your face all day?”  He laughed, “Not unless you want to get one of them hats with corks dangling off um.” So that's what they're for. Liv already knew this, but it was a revelation to me.

View Larger Map

We left Bachelor and headed along the road that linked to the Highway, Darwin was about 100km away, so based on previous day's distances we should make it by the end of the next day. But as we approached the highway we noticed deep grey clouds looming ahead. So thick and low were they, that I had to check my map to make sure we weren't looking at the sea. A storm was on its way, the wind picked up and whipped about us as we stopped to snap a dramatic “cycling into the storm” photo.

The rain came just before we hit the highway, and it came pretty hard outright. Since the only dry t-shirt I had left was the one I was wearing I put my waterproof jacket on, and wished I had brought waterproof gaters because my shoes were going to get rinsed. Sure enough, as we joined the highway the heavens opened and for about two hours the rain rattled down. It was amazing. After three days of blistering heat here we were at 11am tearing down the highway at 30kmph, cool and full of energy. The downside was that, compared to the previous days' riding the road wasn't so exciting, but it had it's moments. Flocks of large birds rising from the fields beside us, hundreds of baby toads hopping to clear a path as we pedalled through their patch of puddled road, and road trains – great big lorries three or four carriages long - thundering past us every few minutes sending clouds of water vapour up at our faces, and shaking our bikes so we have to hold on tightly to avoid wobbling off and falling under them. Liv's not a big fan of these noisy stretches of road, but I think they can be pretty exhilarating. We both agreed though that it was good to be covering ground so quickly. By midday we had covered more than 60km, and it looked like we would make Darwin by the end of the afternoon.

We stopped for lunch at a place called Noonamah, that seemed to consist of one bottle-o (that's off license to any Brits reading this), and a tavern. The rain was beating down pretty hard still, and we were ready for a refuelling. Noonamah tavern was one of the most depressing places we have visited in Australia so far. Wonky writing on a whiteboard outside announced that 2 girls would be stripping here tonight, and the clientele were all sat around the bar drinking in silence, wearing baseball caps, and staring at computer generated bingo that they could play along with if they paid the anorexic bar maid $20 for a ticket. It was your cut out and keep stereotypical truckers bar, complete with an 80's rock soundtrack. We ate outside.

One can be quick to judge though, as it must take quite a bit to get people drinking before midday on a Thursday. However, we were only there for an hour or so, so I have to be quick to judge. It's before midday on a Thursday, gentlemen, you shouldn't be drinking.

The rest of the day was very smooth sailing, the rain eased off late enough so that when the sun did arrive, it was manageable. But once we arrived in Darwin city limits actually getting back to our hostel was not going to prove so easy. Obama was in town, or rather, leaving town after a rather hasty visit to announce the US was going to station 2500 troops in the state (why they are doing this seems a bit of a mystery that the Northern Territory newspaper brushed over in favour of offering its readers a fold out paper hat with Obama's beaming face on it that they could wear down the pub). All roads into and out of town were closed by police. Let me repeat that. All roads into and out of town, at 5pm, were closed – something that would have resulted in riots and murders had it been done in London. We stopped off for a drink at a small cafe, I had my milk craving quenched, and the woman at the counter gave us a map to help us figure out a sneaky route through residential areas into town. By the time we got riding again though the roads were being re-opened, so we cruised back into town along the cycle paths adjacent to the highway, and came back to our hostel before nightfall.

Obama was in town, but he wasn't making any public appearances.
We got a room without issue, although our room mate is a weird Israeli guy who smokes a lot of dope and seems to spend his day wandering in and our of our room trying to identify if any of our gear is releasing toxic chemicals that might injure his brain. It takes all sorts hey.

After a much needed shower we searched for an Italian restaurant, and enjoyed pizza and pasta, and got quite drunk off a little bottle of white. Climbing into bed that night was the most comfortable feeling imaginable, and I slept soundly – and had a lucid dream about going to the dentists. It's nice when life is vastly more exciting that the dream's you're having.

Today we have picked up a few odds and ends from town, and pigged out on a lunch of cheeses, dips and olive bread. We met some nice people in the kitchen in the morning who we might join for a drink tonight, and when we were shopping in town we met Rob – the guy on his way to Iceland who gave us water on the dusty hot road – who might join us too. Now I'm going to try to get all of these blog entries loaded up, so I can concentrate on doing absolutely nothing at all for the next few hours. Tomorrow we pack the bikes up. The day after, we get on a plane to Indonesia, and the adventure really begins.

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