Thursday, August 6, 2015

Emus, dust and wild flowers

Something caught my eye in amongst the conifers and so I rested my bike against a tree beside the road to follow my curiosity into the forest. A mob of twenty five emus were all gathered and didn't seem to mind my presence, so I watched them for a while, exasperated by their number, before riding on, further north into the Flinders Ranges.

The day before we were in Hawker, where the ancient rugged peaks dominating the horizons in all directions, with an especially good view from the lookout walks (Police Hill, Castle Rock). The area is very active with earthquakes, and one occurred 20 km north while we were visiting, but we didn't feel it, but you can see the seismograph in the general store, the ink running off the page. From there we headed towards Wilpena, the iconic range of these parts; the one on all the postcards. First thing that morning I spotted four emus; they spotted me also, coming over to me to pose for photos. I thought that was a lucky find.

You also notice plenty of pale, german-shepherd-coloured kangaroos here, while travelling at bicycle speed at least. The first time I saw one I thought it was an albino.

Its surprising to us the amount of pale green-grey cypress pine; strangely out of place where we are expecting arid plants, mallee maybe, or sparse gums to rule. It gives the place a Twin Peaks vibe. Black-shouldered kites hover above us from time to time, but we aren't seeing Kestrels anymore. The road is up and down, crossing plenty of dried up creek beds on causeways; their river stones a myriad of different pastels tightly packed over the roots of river reds.

In the late afternoon we reach Wilpena, chased in by the sightseeing small aircraft, and after quickly pitching camp, go for a walk into the 'Pound' before sunset.

Next day we pick up the Mawson trail again, with the wind so fierce we can barely leave Wilpena; it pushes us back as we try to push our bikes up some small stony rises, but once we scrabble to the top we stop fighting it, put out bikes down, and take a moment to look behind us at a section of Wilpena Pound now unobscured by trees. So otherworldly in the morning light, it burns its image onto our retinas, determined not to be forgotten. Luckily for us, the trail quickly makes it's way into the cypress-pine, albeit with a fairly technical bit of single track to contend with on loaded touring bikes. Front, low pannier bags keep getting snagged on trees and rocks, so there were countless moments of snap switches between mental thoughts of "this is fun, look at me, I'm awesome" to "wow that's a steep rocky ravine and I'm heading straight for it" as your bike changes direction 90 degrees in an instant.

There were several times when we'd come across a solitary emu, plodding along up the trail, unawares of us, as we slowed to match its base and giggle at its mechanical, 'Thunderbirds-puppetry' like legs while it walked. They really do look walk like an early prototype in robotics. Eventually it would detect our presence and run off with legs inelegantly flailing like that gangling kid at school, coming awkwardly last on mandatory sports day; but with a swishy skirt of shaggy feathers bounding as they run making for a more ludicrous scene. The chaotic manner in which they escape is apparently used to avoid wedgetail attack, possibly because its hard to prey on a bird that's making your ribs hurt with its comedy.

Wilpena Pound is your constant companion for hours, and you feel its presence like a very tall guide walking beside you, keeping you safe and on track.

As the scenery turned from forest to more open country we could often hear the emus deep grunts and drumming noises before we could spot them with our eyes. After climbing a steep ascent on an unsealed road (curious but clueless 4WDers wanting to engage in moderate levels of enquiry out their car windows while we attempted to pedal up a 25% unsealed incline didn't get a response), by mid afternoon we made it to Middlesight water hut. It looked nice. Neither of us had slept in a hut before so we spent the night. As dusk descended, a near full supermoon rose and we saw a teeny microbat fly over us.

The hut had bunks and was nice and warm all night. We read the logbook about Heysen trail walkers and Mawson trail riders exploits on the happy trails. Next morning we ride on the quiet road into a campground set amidst the Trezona range. No one is around so we enjoy this beautiful vista of craggy ancient shale and limestones around us alone. We cross the creek bed and follow the trail along the Trezona track. More riding through emu country, then we find the main road again, passing the "Great Wall of China" made up of stubborn rock forming a dinosaur like spine. A sheep on the wrong side of a fence tries to join his flock but runs straight into the fence, landing on his butt like a drunk walking into a glass wall; righting himself he then looks at me... sheepishly.

We are watched by a lazy red kangaroo resting in the sun amongst orange rocks, and a pair of circling wedgetails as we rode into Blinman, the highest town in SA. As we emerge from the hotel, having quickly gobbled some delicious pub grub for lunch like hungry dogs, a kelpie regards us. The barkeep tells its a kind of red dog who waits around all day until someone takes it home.

We ride west - the wind now an annoying crosswind, on a harsh unsealed road - stopping momentarily at Angorachina for fizz. A few large sheep are on the wrong side of a fence but they don't fear me and run. On my approach they simply, calmly, one by one, leap miraculously over the barbed wire fence unscathed. The scene was like a cartoon about counting sheep to get to sleep. Baaa. Jump. Baaa. Jump. Baaa. Jump....

The scenery remains a geologists dream - ochre red rusty and rugged peaks everywhere. We pass kangaroos - Euros - a mother and her joey poking out of the pouch just glare at me from the side of the road; a large male stops as I do, stands up, (ripples his chest muscles almost), then hops lazily to the other side of the road; another male just looks up to regard me briefly before continuing to eat grass: Pfft, whatever, mere human. Some black and white feral goats bleat, and a grey old billy goat can be seen at the top of a precariously rocky peak, but its the way that kangaroos scale the escarpments in just a few bounds that amaze; not a stone upturned.

We stop to camp at a stop in the Parachilna Gorge, at the trailhead for the Heysen hike, surrounded by rocky peaks glowing amber in last light of day. After dark, a supermoon rises between two peaks, so bright we can see our shadows - moonshadows -  cast across the creek bank. I don't think the wind stopped to take a breath all night, flapping at the tent.

More riding on the unsealed road the next day, which gets more corrugated and destructive to our bikes, bones and sanity. Three grey kangaroos hop across the road in front of me; the last fell in the dusty road but quickly got up and continued escaping me. If something as dexterous and graceful as a kangaroo has trouble staying upright on this road, how am I managing? Suddenly the peaks disappear and the flat horizon seems to surround us in almost every direction; a strange contrast to day of being fenced in by the ranges. We eventually find the sealed B83, and Parachilna there, but everything is shut at this time of the morning, so we ride north into a strong headwind to top up our energy with snacks at a ruined cottage. Bag moth caterpillars are trying to cross the bitumen in their hundreds -- so called because they form bags in the trees. The hairy things cause severe skin irritations if you are unlucky to get them on you so we don't feel so bad squashing a few under our tyres. The northern Flinders Ranges accompany us on the right, but their beauty cannot distract us enough from the horrible wind we are trying to wade through. A grey kangaroo mum and joey cross the road in front of me and disappear out of sight suddenly, straight down into a creek bed, only to poke a head up. Cute, but hardly a winner at hide and seek.

Beltana roadhouse is closed so we have lunch in a dry creek bed, finding shade under a river red gum. Its a warm, sunny day, but mostly we are worn out from the wind. Kestrels are returning to our vistas, as are more sheep; the hills sparsely dotted with vegetation as the land dries out. We ride past a wave frozen in rock. An empty coal train beats me into town. In 2018 the Alinta mine that employs most of the residents will be no more, but will the towns that water and feed the tourists here survive? We struggle on, and make it into Leigh Creek, having exhouased our water supplies; the dry headwind like a desiccant. We attach the service station fridge to slake our thirst, then check into the dusty caravan park, utterly ruined. We share the space with an "adventure coach" full of retirees from Adelaide, wanting a "swag" experience of the outback, without the adventure or true experience. We run away from the potential litany of annoying questions from people with the thinly-veiled but naive superiority of people who have travelled without effort (the same effort that gives a scene context and makes it memorable). We escape to the pub for drinks and meal. Two locals see us lock up our bikes and salute us with "Congratulations on the ride in" and "Yeah, congrats" with such gusto like they actually mean it; like they knew what the wind was doing to us.

Back at camp much later, when everyone is asleep, I wander back to tent, but gaze back over my shoulder at the sky momentarily. A shooting star darts across it, and at the exact same moment one of the "coach experience" camper's camouflage-coloured touring tents falls down. I swear to you my wish was innocent.

During the night the wind dies down, but picked up again -- miraculously blowing from the other direction. A tailwind? Can I believe it? Yesssssss! We pack up and get on the road early in the morning and fly into nearby Copley for breakfast, barely pedalling, laughing maniacally all the way. A red kangaroo races along beside us at the same speed, next to the road we are coasting. Its trying to cross the road but we're staying steady with it, effortlessly, at 35 km/h. It keeps bouncing along, watching its footfalls, stopping, looking up, seeing we are still beside it incredulously, cursing us. Eventually it puts the foot on the gas and cross the road in front of Simon at darting speed.

At Copley the cafe owner is nice, sincere and chatty and tells us about what to expect of the road ahead to Marree and the Oodnadatta track. Apparently the track he gives a '7 out of 10' at the moment because the rains mean they have recently graded the road. We are already pretty sure we will ride it to the T-junction and head south to Roxby Downs for a longer but mostly sealed and probably quicker and less bike-destroying ride to Coober Pedy, instead of travelling via William Creek. He's happy to hear this as he doesn't want to get a useless-to-him lat/lon from the authorities from where we need rescuing. What might be epic and a fun challenge on a fat bike packed light could slowly destroy our laden touring bikes carrying extra water and food, unless we limp along slowly, carefully, and I guess I'm just not in for that Mad Max bullshit. I guess I like my bike in the shape its in.

We ride the 33 km to Lyndhurst with ease and smiles, and the very nice lady at the roadhouse offers us a shower but we politely refuse not wanting to waste a minute of this tailwind we've been gifted (or maybe we've earned); we're afraid it will forsake us and we'd be filled with regret the rest of the day. We drink fizz and buy a takeaway lunch for further down the road. The sealed road ends here and the dirt is occassionally as smooth as a suburban bike path (i.e. somewhat) but often unpredictably lumpy, jittering our and our bikes frames like violence. I resort to filling my ears with music, to cover the disturbing rattles and creaks as my bike complains of ill treatment -- like its filing for a restraining order against me.

The road to Marree has ocassional sealed sections (better than those found in magazines) that announce themselves with signs saying "Sealed road 5 km ahead" and you woop out loud to yourself when you see it. The sealed road also comes signed with the distance until the bitumen disappears again, so you know how long to enjoy yourself on the silk sheets of pavement. "17 km of sealed" says one sign. Bliss. But it still ends too quick.

We have lunch at some ruins at Farina. This would have been our destination today if we had headwinds still. By 3 pm we've made it to 5 km out of Marree, 115 km despite all the dirt, but we make a free camp to save some cash and so we can hot breakfast in Marree the next day. We wheel our bikes behind some acacia and devour a packet of Monte Carlos and some fruit cake, read books and listen to the radio. Just over a fence beyond some emu tracks is the old Ghan railway line. The sun sets and we pitch tent now that no one will notice us. The sky is now a "gradient fill" across its dome of pink to blue to yellow to red, before the dazzling stars come out. We are asleep before the moon starts its shift.

Morning brings us into Marree where we fill up with rainwater (8 litres in case of desiccating headwinds) and breakfast and groceries. On a whim I pick up a gladwrapped hedgehog slice. Do this. Ride out to Marree now and pick one up. Its a CWA-ladies version of radio cake with a layer of mint between the biscuit and the chocolate top. Get me one while you are there. We ride out of town with two old blokes sitting on plastic chairs on a porch murmuring their disapproval at us.

The road doesn't seem that bad -- maybe it is a '7' at the moment. There are occasional sections where it is impossible to find a line of road you can ride without rattling the skin off your bones, but mostly it is a case of concentrating  intensely on where is safe enough to run your wheels and checking mirrors for passing vehicles vigilantly. Its slow going still. The locals using the road are super nice, slowing down, passing as far over as they can, to keep the dust and stones down. Tourists sometimes are good like that, but there are about 10% who have no clue about the etiquette of 'Less speed, less dust' and race past (sometimes without a 30 cm of you!) with their 4WDs and off road trailers kicking up stones at you. You just wish you could catch up with them and throw a handful of stones and dust at them in return. These are the types that'd give other drivers a smashed windscreen from a loose rock.

Luckily the road in quiet and you only see a couple of vehilcles in an hour. The land is nearly featureless and flat, except for something beautiful in the distant south that looks like a heavily eroded Uluru. The flora is more nullabor than the nullabor. The wildlife that we can see is now restricted to birds, and mostly its the hilarious anctics of the Brown songlark that flutters up-up-up and then floats down with its little legs dangling that keep us amused. They have these calls they make as they flutter upwards that sound like it is from a windup music box, all melodic, repetitive and metallic, or perhaps a mobile phone ringtone named after some obscure planet. These birds are our feathery alarm clocks at first light, although we never do find the snooze button. Finches also entertain us, flying in complicated patterns next to us, then crossing the road in front of us in a blur. Occasionally we'd ride past some unfenced black or brown bulls that would just stare at us disdainfully. 

The Oodnadatta track follows a trade route for Australias first people, and Parachilna Gorge was a source of tradeable ochre. We come across another stone ruin to have lunch at, amidst the flies. I managed to find a tub of 'Desert Dwellers' fly repellent at Marree (I think only available elsewhere at Darwin), but this pungent creme hasn't proved effective enough on these particular blighters. At one point we ride through a dust storm like a dystopian picture. 66 km down the dirt we find the T-intersection: the decision point. Roxby Downs or William Creek? Mostly sealed but more kilometres, or all unsealed, to Coober Pedy? Less dirt please. We head south down Borefield track towards Roxby. The road seems prety nice, albeit the wind is now right in our faces, and after about 10 km we're done for the day, making camp in the sand amongst some paper daisies and the rare sandhill canegrass. Brown songlarks trill and dance as we push out bikes through the soft powdery red sand and lay out our bivvys. We fall asleep watching the twinkling stars and shooting stars slide out.

Next morning, the feathery alarm clocks get us up and on the road quiclky and we ride past the "RD 100" sign (Roxby Downs 100 km) thinking "piece of cake". There was no cake to be had. There is still a headwind, of course. The track surface also gets worse as the soil gets a deeper red colour. Unpredictable sandy patches tried to buck us from our metallic broncos. Rough sections amidst unpassable soft dirt. Red mud that clogged up our wheels and was nearly too slippery to ride or walk on. Soft gravel with rocks and lumps so you spent half your time airborne rather than moving forward. We made it as far as the Olympic Dam mine site (heavily fence with 'No camping' of course) by the time the sun is nearly setting so we camp behind a dune on the last bit of unfenced land, still a way out of Roxby.

Another night to bivvy amongst the soft but gloriously red, red dirt and paper daisies that look like tiny fried eggs. The wildflowers have come early this year because of the rains - carpets of whites and yellows and purples set against the rust coloured sand. There are Sturt's Desert Peas in clusters, here and there, like silent one-eyed alien creatures landed on earth, watching, waiting...

Next day a red kangaroo hops along in front of us with his grey-coloured female and young. An occassional glimpse of emus on a sand dune. An omnivorous Sleepy Lizard eats a yellow wild flower. An arid recovery park is set up to guilt-subtract from the mining operatins, helping revive populations of Bilby and others; a 20 x 20 km fenced off area that just seem to annoy the roos as they bounce along beside its walls.

At Roxby we ride into town and its like a suburban shopping village except with more red dirt. The Carpenters blare out of a tinny external speaker at the RoxFM station building, making it feel like we are extras in a schlock horror Aussie film and something bad is about to happen. At the 'mall' i find soap, a tap and paper towels in the Ladies so I decide to wash my face of its dirt moustache. My face white again, I then notice my black neck underneath. I decide to wash that also but then I have to stop there and ignore the mirror or I'll never be able to leave the restroom, finding more ghosts of dust storms and nights wrapped in red dirt.

1 comment:

John W Naylor said...

Graphic descriptions of country I know and love, but from the perspective of a walker or a car driver, I hope one of the more considerate ones.

Your daily efforts amaze me. We are touring in the soft arms of France, on paths besides canals, on seaside cycle paths where wandering pedestrians are the hazard, and quietly decaying rural roads or rutted earthen cycle paths are as bad as it gets.

We are delighted by the high numbers of touring cyclists here. Al the generations are represented. Late 60s and early 70s right down to 4 or 5 year olds, and even younger. Saw family yesterday with Mum with a youngster in a bike seat leading, the next child up pedaling along determinedly, then Dad towing the kiddie trailer with the youngster's pink BMX strapped to the canopy of the trailer. Precious stuff.

Every now and then a child is out with a parent or grandparent on one of those pedaless scoot along bikes kids learn best on about balance.

May the winds get behind you soon. My reading of the weather maps gives me hope for your chances.

I think we will be in Adelaide as you head back to Melbourne, and hope we can catch up then.

As the say here, Bon courage!