Wednesday, August 12, 2015

There is such a thing as too much fresh air

The small green signs that count down your approach to a town, spaced every 10 km, were proving very evasive as we slowly made our way into outback Coober Pedy at a rate of 7 km/h. Tumbleweed flew across the road in front of us like they were late for meetings. The narrow road shoulder worse than useless, with a rumble stripe audible line being a hazard to us if we ran up against it. Cattle road trains with three trailers blasted past us narrowly. We were riding into a headwind of about 50 km/h, perhaps more. There wasn't much difference between the constant wind and the gusts. All our effort turned into such a slow speed -- almost walking -- for the 60 km we had left to ride into town.

Two days earlier we had a similar headwind/crosswind, but from the other side of the road, and not as punishing. It never did slide around to be behind us like we had quite literally wished on a star for, several times at night. On that day we had managed a mere 80 km riding from sunrise, leaving from a rocky camp at a lookout spot near Pimba, all the way to dusk.

The day in between the wind had been more kind to us. We woke up to the still air from a camp not far from the Bon Bon rest area and decided to quickly get to the water tank there, and then ride on another few km before we even had breakfast in case that headwind returned. We managed to ride 115 km that day because the wind was a lot lighter.

The scenery remains fairly constant: low bushes, barely above the around; a rare tree or shrub that a person might be able to use to escape the sun or the wind behind. The wildflowers are scattered here and there; the ground covered in spots with delicate pinks or golden yellows. Desert Peas also crop up occasionally, usually in very small communities.

On the way out of Roxby Downs, about 48 k N of Woomera we found an ocean of the brilliant red desert peas beside the road; a simply amazing number of the black-beaded red flowers in one spot. Shortly after we clicked over 2000 km so far on our trip. The road south of Roxby is sealed, and surrounded in some parts with a desolately flat, featureless green. You follow some bleak power transmission lines forever. A dragon glares at us from its position on the edgeline, soaking in the road warmth. We entertain the occasional mob of emus. Every few kilometres there is another large bird of prey kite circling and casting ominous shadows over us as we pass below. Sometimes some roadkill will have them on the road, or diving down to scoop up some part of previously-internal organ from kangaroo off the asphalt.

Sea of desert peas

Road out of Roxby

Road Dragon

Riding further the scene turns from the red dirt of scrubby emu country to the Mars surface heading into Woomera. There are signs beside the road warning of Australian Government Defence Department Prohibited Area: "do not deviate". Close to the small township, the road forks: one way to Woomera town and nearby Pimba, the other to the detention centre prohibited area with its offensive high razor-wire fence. Woomera town seems to dedicate a high percentage of its land to painted-over-rust-relics from rocket launches and other airborne forays into military toys. We didn't join the caravaners exploring these outdoor museums, instead heading for the general store, then riding out past Pimba and to the lookout over the strange island lagoon to camp.

Further along the Stuart highway, Lake Hart with its Lake Eyre-like salty edges dominates the scene for a short while, before the road continues to carve a path between the mulga with wattles in golden bloom, the ruby flowers of hop bush and scarlet Eremophila, the grey blue of bladder saltbush (nature's bubble wrap) and bluebush. The yellow-flowered gums have swollen buds just about to burst into colour. Carpets of wildflowers below these of masses of yellow soft billy buttons, bright yellow seas of fleshy groundsel daisy flowers, the everlasting poached egg daisy, tiny white with yellow centre daisy flowers of bush minuria, purple desert fushias and miniature flowers of deliate pinks.

The Trans Australian Railway line runs near the highway, and a long procession of cargo passes by us every couple of hours heading east or west. We are starting to see lots of B-triple trucks pass us now as well as tankers with two giant barrels carrying fuel up the middle. We camp 5 km from Glendambo, down a dirt tack, and in amongst the thin-leaved acacia that whistle in the wind.

Next morning we manage to eat a full truckers breakfast at the Glendambo shell, and buy some 1.5 litre bottles of water as the taps only produce salty bore water. Lots of caravanners pass us, amongst the long freight. More wildflowers delight everywhere. Wedgetails take off from the edges of the road with giant spreads of amazing power and underwing pattern. Kestrels hover now and then, but mostly dart about on the wind. In the afternoon an emu is running alongside a barbed fence. We stop, but it is still getting tangled in the cruel wire. It falls in a feathery heap before kicking wildly, making the fence sing terribly, and so I cover my face and cringe. Next thing we know its up again on the other side of the fence and running wildly, with who knows what damage. We camp as the sun sets, turning the red dirt pink and dialing all the mulga and wattle colour up to vivid 11.

There is rain water at the moment, in the tanks available at two rest stops along the 250 km stretch between Glendambo and Coober Pedy (at Bon Bon rest area and Ingomar rest area) but it is impossible to know how long this would last for bike riders' use. After 115 km we rough camp down a track amongst the iron-red stones, where we are joined by brown songlarks dive bombing the area with their legs dangling (I think I want to come back as one, it looks too much fun), then a sunset of gradients rising over the pancake horizon, and as that fades, eventually the stars also join us, while we get blasted by the wind the flat earth does nothing to slow, and that snuffs our cooking fires out. We sleep, but that final miserable 60 km into Coober Pedy awaits us with the trill of birdsong the next morning.

Sunset from camp, flat country

Warning signs

Around about the half way mark in the 250 km stretch between services

As we reach 10 km out of Coober, a myriad of signs placed randomly untidy written on scrap metal and old car bonnets tied to star pickets beckon us to "pick me, pick me" for accommodation, tourist cash-cow attractions and other services. The wind seems to get stronger against us with each metre we get closer, like it doesn't want us to enter town, or like it is some real world boss level. We no longer wear cranky headwind faces, but a crazed sideways grin that says "this wind is so fucked that it is now comical". Song larks do their sky larking at us. Waves of red grit blow from uncovered shoulders and mine sites. The wind turbine at the top of the rise is pointing straight at the wind, turning fast, and facing the same direction as our hapless selves.

We turn into the main road of town and red dust shrouds us. The town has no trees and nothing green. It is pink sandstone and red dust and more red dust covering all in its midst, from the cars, to the people, to the buildings and signs. There are beat up utes with crude agricultural-looking opal mining machinery on the back driving around the the main street, which is walled in by pink and rust coloured rocky walls into which some shops and hotels are dug into, and your more-usual-looking low buildings and country pubs and service stations are nestled in among these. Weird fabrications combining metal scrap and pipes, old cars and buses, welded together to make strange contraptions like nightmare spiders, and insects from apocalypse movie props warehouses, are the town art. We feel like extras from a Mad Max film and even look the part with our dirty, dusty, effort-stained clothes, and dirty, weary, wary faces. I exclaim "Mad Max 15: The guzzaline has run out and we have to ride bicycles!".

We grab a drink from the pub, and then seek out some dug-out ("underground") accommodation: cream and rust coloured walls, ceilings; etched with mining machinery claws from when they were tunnelled; lights struggling to illuminate dark corners; voices, footsteps echoing eerily; breathing noises of air being moved through holes drilled in rock. The TV plays vintage 80s footage about opals, and the desperate gambling noodlers and miners.

Just as we had arrived into Coober Pedy, some power failure took out all the lines, so there was no eftpos, no ATMs, no mobile coverage. Cash-only signs were brought out of drawers as the locals took it in their "hey, at least the power is still on" stride. This just added to the wild-west-frontier feel of the place, along with the swirling dust in the wind blown unwashed town.

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