Monday, July 25, 2016

Riding with three caterpillars

Despite being conscientious about the early flight -- getting to Melbourne airport the night before to pack our bikes -- it didn't start well. 

On the Sunday afternoon we caught the train out to Jacana and rode the rest of the way to the airport, via Melrose Drive. There is a newish off-road bike path on the last stretch into the Melbourne airport which -- predictably for bicycle infrastructure in Australia -- stops a few hundred metres too early, dumping you onto a busy road without a real shoulder, and complete with no-cycling signs on the path as it returns when you get to the terminals. 

Having made it to the airport, we buy bike boxes and pack up our bikes. We stay in an airport hotel overnight, excited for our week ahead in Central Australia, but not wanting to pack our bikes a stupid o'clock so getting this chore over with the night before. Next morning, we line up for an hour in the bag drop line amongst the school holidays queues and confusion. We miss our flight. Lining up again at a service desk, we manage to get onto another flight to Adelaide where we can meet our connecting flight to Alice Springs. Another line up in the long bag drop queue and we've got our bikes checked in, finally.

After that excitement (and wallet-sting), we spend a boring day in the airports, mildly fretting about whether our bikes will actually make it onto our connecting flight with the changes to our boarding passes. We watch the luggage handlers in earnest, with relief once we see our boxes on the cart to be loaded, and can board the plane to Alice along with them. I come up with an idea for a premium-service where you get luggage tracking, like you can with packages shipped in the post, so you actually know where you stuff is to some degree. 

As the plane lands we pass over the ranges and the red soil beckons from the porthole windows; beautiful red soil. We grin at each other as the plane touches the tarmac. 

The weather is warm and sunny at the other end, when we ride the 15 or so kilometres into Alice Springs after reassembling our bikes in the afternoon. Finding the Todd River, it only has a few puddles left, a month or so after it was running last. I'm sure it's flowing underneath that course sand, less obvious on the surface perhaps, but no less real, just like the strength and resilience of the original people.

I check in and do the usual scout around to find a way to sneak our bikes into the hotel room without raising the wrath of hotelliers who seem to think bicycles turn into drummers who throw TVs out of windows or something. A lot of bike touring for me is being sneaky: Free camping, hiding bikes from thieves and avoiding inane questions. I am getting pretty good at it, I like to think.

Next day we get the last of our supplies and head out on the bike paths towards Simpson's Gap. The Northern Territory has relaxed helmet laws where you can ride without a helmet as an adult on a bike path, and I'm enjoying the freedom from chinstraps and the wind in my hair as we glide down hills. I'm packed light with just a handlebar bag and a seat bag -- bikepacking they call it. It's just a few days to carry food for and I wear basically all my clothes when it gets cold. Simon is carrying our tent.

The Simpson's Gap bike path has to be one of my favourites in Australia. Not only can I ride casually along without a helmet or any concern for vehicles, the path meanders its wiggly way along between the ranges -- whose creation story is giant procession caterpillars (or itchy bugs, or bag moth caterpillars) converging on Alice Springs from the west and east and turning to stone -- so twisty and turny that you get to see the impressive mountains from a variety of angles.

Ignoring the invasive Buffel grass, the witchetty bush, mulga, dessert oaks, spinifex and cypress ooze Central desert country colours, with the satin blues and velvety purples of distant ranges, and the closer, deep-greens and chocolates of the stone caterpillars -- no imagination is required to see the undulations of the ranges' slopes as the countless legs of moth larvae frozen in time. It's hard for me to describe the emotions that a Central Australian desert scene wells up in me. We travelled around this area about a year ago and, just like the Kimberley regions, Central Australia -- if you have travelled it slowly, over months not days, at least -- just becomes a part of you somehow, like an old friend. It sounds like I am romanticising, but this is how it feels to me. A desert oak against a clear blue sky, salmon coloured stones scattered amongst red dirt, a flush of yellow wildflowers the same colour as sprays of wattle, and the ochre colours of mountain ranges, just seem to worm their way in to you and take the place of blood and sustenance.

We reach Simpson's Gap and Simon points out all the black-footed rock wallabies in the scree, which I can never seem to spot without him. One the movement is spotted we can focus our cameras on and use the zoom to see them better. Their black face-paint tries to make them look sinister, but can't trick me into thinking of them anything other than playful stomach-stratching ear-twitching sun-bathing fluffballs that make me laugh.

The Gap has more water in it than last we were here, and the bright orange rock reflects back in mirror image from the water. School holidays means families bringing their kids, who just run around and scream and fall over and cry loudly, ignorant of the wallabies across the creek, hiding in the scree; or the peace this place offers if you just shut up for a minute.

Next we join up with Larapinta Drive to ride the twenty of so kilometres to the turn off to Standley Chasm. Nine more kilometres and an impressive mountain range ahead of us to reach Standley Chasm before night fall. We enjoy a cooked meal from the kiosk and mango icecream before setting up camp. After a walk in the chasm in the morning (I kept calling it CHasm, much to the chargrin of Simon) all by ourselves (we beat the tour buses in) and some breakfast, we head out again. The tour busses are making their way in as we ride out and we whoop with joy that we beat them, and didn't have to share the space so early in the morning. After getting back to Larapinta Drive (with many looks back at the mountains glowing purple in the morning light), another 6km and we turn onto  Namatjira Drive which has half as much traffic (as Hermansburg is the other fork). 

Today will be a long day of riding, 100 km, to Glen Helen gorge. Despite it being winter, its about 25 degrees and beautiful. I even manage to get sunburnt, despite wearing sunscreen, on the "driving side" arm that is facing the sun. I get so sunburnt my arm swells. I think perhaps the sunscreen sweated off early, which was unexpected in winter.

Glen Helen Gorge is beautiful. It's a giant wall of rusty stone towering over the oldest river, the Finke, whose water is clear and has a bottom of orange to cork coloured river stones of various sizes. We visit while a brilliant blue sky is present to bring out the colours in their finest. Its so warm we have icecreams again. The bar proudly claims to be 130 km from the nearest other bar, a short distance by most Australian standards.

We have a luxurious dinner at the resort, with an entree of crocodile, emu and camel.

The next morning we make a decision. Instead of riding on to Redbank to get a closer look at Mt Sonder, we shell out for a 30 minute helicopter flight over Ormiston Gorge and Mt Sonder, and get a look from above at the three caterpillars stretching their way for a hundred or so kilometres across the rusty dirt and spinifex. The recent rains have got the place looking very green, casting doubt on its semi-arid nature.

This was the first time either of us had been in a helicopter, and after the initial unnatural-ness of the takeoff, where you feel like you do if you go over the handlebars, you soon get used to being a flying thing. The copter pilot was curious why were were so quiet, but we were just in awe of the scenery, mesmerising from the ground, gobsmacking from the air.

After the flight we are buzzing. We hang around another hour at Glen Helen resort and feed on camel burgers. Finally we ride off after filling our bottles with rainwater. That night we camp near an abandoned chalet, passing some Larapinta hikers on the way. 

Next morning we head into Serpentine Gorge, and walk some of the way up the lookout walk. I grab another litre of water from the Larapinta hikers shelter there. The days are so warm. Ellery Big Creek we ride the rough track in. At the cattle grid I'm waiting for ages for a 4WD driver to slowly pass, apparently afraid his wheels are going to fall off. As I pass him he yells out "rough track". It's smoother than the track into Serpentine Gorge and I've seen a lot worse. I'm having fun on a mountain bike with 2 inch wheels and hardly any gear on my bike, and I feel I can be a lot less cautious about killing spokes when I'm only riding a few days.

We camp that night up a powerline track near a creepy wreck of a old falcon amongst the twittering birds in the witchetty bush.

Riding back into town, we enjoy the Simpson's Gorge bike track again in the other direction. I took a little hand-held video of what it looks like.

Simpson's Gap bike track, Larapinta (Alice Springs) from Maree BikeTourOz on Vimeo.

In the middle of a vacant allotment smack in the middle of Alice Springs there is this massive, lonely, rogue Boab tree. We visit it but it has no signs of nuts and is fully leaved. I wonder how it got to be there, it seems a long way from home. I makes me miss further north, in the Savannah. I'll be back again.

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