Bicycles and the Bush

In July of 1996 I quit my job as a senior writer for Time Magazine, packed my panniers and on a 21-speed Cannondale tourer, and with my final pay cheque as a road stake, set out from Sydney on a 10,000-mile solo trek around Australia. I was gone nine months. It was a rollicking adventure. I met all kinds of people – graziers, cane growers, bush policemen, wanted criminals, missionaries, shearers, drovers,and road train drivers; I stayed on cattle stations, in remote aboriginal communities, in mining towns, outback pubs and camped rough out on the vast spinifex plains a hundred miles from the nearest dwelling and with a billion stars overhead. I had the time of my life.

When I returned to so-called civilization I wrote a story about my trek which was published as a three-part series inNational Geographic and later appeared in book form, Cold Beer & Crocodiles. In the years since I have had, and continue to have, a number of letters forwarded to me written by readers who were planning similar sorts of expeditions themselves, had read my book and wanted advice on cycling through Outback Australia. I have always been happy to oblige, and have written many a lengthy e-mail filled with what I hope turned out to be useful tips and suggestions. Australia is a wonderful country to explore by bicycle. It is that rare thing in travel: a destination that is big and raw and wild enough to satisfy anybody’s longing for remote-area hardship and adventure, and yet at the same time it is clean, safe, cosmopolitan and friendly. What’s not to like?

It occurs to me that with a magazine-style blog such as this I have at my disposal a handy platform for answering some of those most frequently asked questions in one fell swoop and giving encouragement to anyone who is thinking of cycling Australia. So here goes:

Let’s start with that most frequent of frequently as questions, the one about all those deadly creepy-crawlies. Well, they’re out there all right. Australia has something like eight of the world’s top ten most venomous snakes. And yes, you can meet them if you are camping in the bush. But the chances are, you won’t. In nine months of bush camping all over the continent I encountered only one snake – a king brown that was dozing on the sun-warmed bitumen one evening as I was spinning along a lonely outback highway in Queensland. I thought he was just a piece of blown-out truck tyre, swung lazily around it and whizzed past the tip of his nose, scaring the life out of him and me both. And therein lies the point: snakes don’t want to see us any more than we want to see them. Think about it for a second. What’s in it for the snake? They can’t eat us. We’re too big. The only thing they are going to get from humans is grief, and grief is something they don’t need. If it is at all possible they’ll be slipping quietly away long before you see them, and as long as you don’t do anything really stupid like stick your hand into hollow logs or down wombat holes, you’ll be just fine. Perhaps even a little disappointed as you won’t have any dramatic there-I-was stories to regale the folks at home.

If for some reason you do encounter a snake – just leave it alone. Simple as that. Don’t mess with it. Something like eighty per cent of the people who are bitten by snakes are bitten while trying to kill the snake. It’s not a good idea. When it comes to killing things, chances are the snake has had a lot more practice than you have. Steer clear and walk away – all the while congratulating yourself and rehearsing in your mind the gaudy brush-with-death tale you can be dining out on for years ever after.

As for spiders, well, they are out there too. Some are ‘friendly’ (see above!). Others are not. The most common poisonous one is the redback, a cousin of the American black widow. They are smallish, shiny black with a splotch of red on the back – just like the name says. You see them around occasionally in the musty corners of shed and such. They won’t kill you, but being bitten by one won’t make your day either. Again, chances are you are not going to see one.

Australia’s other famously poisonous spider is the funnel web. This is a fairly nasty little beastie that dwells not in the far-flung bush but – wait for it – in metropolitan Sydney. Until an anti-venom was developed for its poison about thirty years ago, it did kill the occasional Sydneysider now and then and you wouldn’t want to be bitten by one today. They are furry brown ambush predators who live in holes in the ground and it is generally gardeners who encounter them, which is why gardeners tend to wear gardening gloves and not just when they are pruning the roses. Again, it is not like they are everywhere; you’re unlikely to encounter one. I lived in Sydney for seven years and in fact worked as a gardener at one of the residential colleges when I was attending the University of Sydney and I think I saw only a couple funnel web spiders in all that time. No big deal.

Moving slightly further afield, saltwater crocodiles, on the other hand, are very worthwhile being scared of, but they are found only in the north, generally (but not always) above the Tropic of Capricorn. Simple rule here: don’t go swimming in estuaries and rivers when you are up there, and in fact even be a bit leery of hanging around the riverbanks. Generally there are signs warning of the likely presence of crocodiles, but not always since tourists seem to have developed a fondness for souvenir-ing the signs. Up north, it is safest to assume that crocodiles are in any body of water and act accordingly. That said, despite the gaudy mention of crocodiles in the title of my book, the truth is I saw only a couple during my journey and those encounters were more in the matter of game spotting; I felt pleased and privileged to see them. There was far, far more cold beer than crocodiles.

A triple road train cuts quite a dash as it thunders down a lonely outback highway on its way to distant places – copyright Roff Smith

The second most frequent query for would-be cycle tourers heading out bush concerns road trains. Road trains, if you didn’t know, are those gigantic double- and triple-trailer rigs that haul goods and livestock in the outback. They are mightily impressive vehicles, as much as 50 metres (165 feet) long and weighing up to 150 tonnes. And they move right along. A lot of well-meaning but non-cycling folk will warn you that it would be suicide to go cycling on highways where the road trains rule; that the suction of these monstrous trucks whooshing by will draw you into (and under!) their wheels, and that their rear trailers can be swinging side-to-side as much as nine feet. It’s all nonsense. The truth is the highways out there are wide open and clear, with plenty of space for road trains to pass you unhindered, and the drivers always give you plenty of room. And no, their rear trailers do not swing wildly side-to-side. The guys pushing these big rigs know their business. In more than 10,000 miles of cycling out there I never once had a single problem with a road train. Not one. Nor have I personally known anyone who did.

Oh – and although you might well hear breathless descriptions of road trains with five, six, eight, ten trailers, it just ain’t so. Australians can be a bit like Texans when it comes to super-sizing their mythical outback. Three is the legal limit on gazetted highways in the bush, although I have seen four used for hauling cattle within the boundaries of some of the bigger stations out there.

As for your own vehicle – your bicycle – any decently constructed tourer will do the trick. I did my ride on a 21-speed Cannondale with an aluminium frame and 700c tyres, the same bike I had been using as a commuter for a couple of years before hand. It survive the outback odyssey in good order, served me many more years after that before I passed it on to my 16 year old son, and he in turn recently took it on a thousand-mile trek up the Oodnadatta Track. Bring all the usual spares – several tubes, patch kits, a spare tyre, extra links for the chain, and a multi-tool. There are excellent bike shops in the big cities and helpful ones in many of the bigger regional towns. You can generally order what you need.
As for camping in the bush, it is easy and straightforward: just go well off the road, out of sight of any passers by, and stake your claim for the night. I like to do this just around dusk, when the light is dim enough for what few motorists there are out there to have their headlights on but with still enough ambient glow in the sky for me to see what I am doing. Australia is a very safe country, but as you would anywhere, it pays to take a few precautions – don’t sleep in obvious places like rest areas or public parks. Be discrete. I used a low-slung, dark-hued bivvy bag which blended in perfectly with the night shadows. And be responsible. Don’t litter and while the thought of a cheerful campfire at night might have a certain picaresque appeal, it’s not really such a great idea. For one thing it’ll give away your location. For another – and much more importantly – a lot of Australia is tinder dry much of the year and fire bans are often in force, with very good reason. If your campfire gets away from you, you are not going to have nearly enough water in your bottles to put it out. On a more upbeat note, camping out on the vast spinifex plains, miles from anywhere, with billions of stars swirling overhead is one of the most magical experiences you can have. And doing it night after night as you cross the deserts seems almost an embarrassment of riches.

One question people don’t ask nearly as often as they should is how much water they ought to be carrying. The short answer, if you are heading very far inland, is: lots. Err on the side of caution. Outback Australia is hot, dusty, distances are vast and cycling is thirsty work. Consider the towns and roadhouses you see dotting the map out there to be like lonely archipelagos with nothing much between them but empty ribbons of highway and shimmering waves of heat. Don’t, whatever you do, assume that the many rivers you see marked on the map will have water in them. They are highly seasonal, and for most of the year will be no more than parched rocky beds with, maybe, if you are lucky, a few stagnant pools here and there leftover from the last season’s rains. And as for all those lakes you see up in the northern reaches of South Australia? Forget them. They are salt pans. Useful for setting land speed records, but not for quenching a thirst.

The Eyre Highway across the Nullarbor, and the Stuart Highway running north-south from Darwin to Adelaide, both have (or had when I was last out there) water tanks at the rest areas. These are very useful, but don’t rely on them. Personally I never came upon one that was dry, but I have heard tales of idiots leaving the spigot open – either by accident or on purpose. Towns and roadhouses are the only utterly reliable places to obtain water, and bear in mind when you are calculating costs that roadhouses, especially those on the Nullarbor Plain will often charge you for water. Ruthlessly. “Let me live in a house by the side of the road and be a friend to man” is not a motto you see embroidered on many framed samplers out there.

How much water to take? Well, on the loneliest stretches of my journey, in the remotest corners of north-western Australia – the Kimberley and the Great Sandy Desert – I as packing as much as 23 litres of water, was glad to have it and wished I had more. It was high summer, temperatures were routinely well over 45C and distances between the towns and roadhouses up there are vast, often well over a hundred miles. This, however, is a pretty extreme example. If you are doing, say, the Nullarbor at a more reasonable time of year – spring or autumn – or riding up to Darwin or Uluru (Ayres Rock) on the Stuart Highway, you could get by with ten to twelve litres, but I wouldn’t carry any less.

Cycling is a fantastic way to explore Australia. If you are planing a trek down there, I hope the above advice will be helpful. If you have other questions about cycling in the bush or are seeking ideas for places to see – or avoid – please drop a comment below. Aside from cycling around Australia, living there for more than 25 years and covering all sorts of stories there for the Sydney Morning Herald and the Melbourne Age and Time Magazine, I’ve also written several Australian features for National Geographic and written the National Geographic Traveler Guidebook to Australia, so there is a reasonable chance I might be able to help.