Flowing time, flowing water

As I mentioned, I took a few days break in Katherine. After central Australia devoid of cities and people, the place felt like a metropolis! I had in mind to go and check out Katherine Gorge, Nitmiluk National Park. Do a bit of hiking in nature, do some actual “sightseeing”.

I have to say I had the date of the Eclipse in my mind from the beginning, that kept me going, as a “deadline to meet”. After that, the rendez-vous with Clem, although missed, also kept me going.

Once in Katherine, I was 320km from Darwin, and only in mid-May, two months into my trip when I had given myself three. Pressure dropped. I felt like I had heaps of time ahead to complete the trip. I could go as slowly as I wanted, and explore around. Before I started I had already taken notice of Kakadu National Park, which lay East of Darwin and would require something like 250 extra km, plus exploration of the Park itself. So I knew I was gonna be able to go there as well.

The sudden lack of a close deadline gave me this floating feeling of having almost too much time ahead and not being even sure of what to do with it. I remember when I told my boss, back in France, that I didn’t want to stay and wanted to travel instead. He said “you need a deadline, like a return date, otherwise you’re not gonna enjoy your time”, I guess there was some truth in his words. It’s not about rushing your life or having very tight time frames. Maybe it’s more that if you allow a defined amount of time for something, then it’s easier to picture it in your mind, you know where you stand, and you can focus on the use you make of that time. If it’s too open, or should we say, loose, then you end up not doing much at all!

But well I did have a next upcoming deadline which was my visa running out in mid-June. And so I kept going.

I might mention at this point that I write these lines about 1 month after I was there. It’s a bit tricky to remember exactly what happened and what went through my mind. In a way It’s good too to have a bit of a shorter post this time, less reading and more pictures!

I think the flowing waters of Katherine Gorge and Edith Falls are a good illustration of the flow of time: it appears still but it is steadily flowing, sometimes slowly and smoothly, sometimes roaring down in waterfalls… Enjoy!

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Going Troppo

The previous day has been pretty full-on. 200km from 8am to 11pm, passing 3 runners, riding at night, staying up until 4am drinking beer and receiving 40$ out of nowhere (literally).
You want to take it easy after a day like that.
I explored a little bit the few sights of Daly Waters. The place was John McDougall Stuart’s “last stop” before reaching the northern coast, on his 6th and final expedition looking for a route through the Australian continent.
Daly Waters was also the first Australian international airport, because at a time when planes didn’t have the range they have today, it was a convenient location for a stopover between Sydney or Melbourne, and South-East Asia.
Quite a lot of history for such a remote place.

Then I get back to the highway and keep going North towards Katherine, where I will take my next few-days-break.
On the highway I get passed by a road train convoy carrying two HUGE mine dumpers. Unfortunately I miss out on the opportunity to take a picture or film it. They are so big that they take almost the entire width of the road. Their enormous wheels are taken off and must be carried on a separate convoy. They are a reminder of the extensive mining industry of Australia.
I stop at Larrimah roadhouse, which has an interesting small zoo, where I’m right on time for the feeding of a saltwater crocodile, the much-feared reptile predator of northern Australia’s waters.
The next day I stop at Mataranka, a township 100km south of Katherine, known for the hot springs of Elsey National Park. I stop and go for a refreshing swim (without crocodiles) at Bitter Springs. Once in the water, I don’t want to come out! The water is not heated by an actual hot spot, it is rainwater absorbed deep underground where it is warmed by the heat of the Earth before being released.

As I go further and further up North, and get closer to Darwin, I can feel the weather gradually changing. The air around me gets thicker and thicker from humidity. I’m all sweaty after 10 minutes of pedaling, whereas in the centre, I could stay dry even wearing 3 layers at a time! The nights aren’t cold anymore and I sleep on my sleeping bag rather than in it. But in May the heat is nothing compared to what it could be a few months earlier, at the peak of the wet season, so I’m fine. In local slang, you say you “go troppo”, as in “going tropical” to say you’re going crazy! Makes sense considering how the wet heat feels! (it’s pretty common in Australia to contract words with “o”, like “serv’o” for service station, “amb’o” for ambulance, or “bottle’o” for bottle shop!)

I get to Katherine where I decide to stop for various reasons. Katherine is a “big town” by Northern Territory standards: it’s got something like 5,000 inhabitants! It’s actually the 3rd main town after Darwin and Alice Springs. But anyway, it’s a chance for me to kick back, re-supply on food at a reasonable price, get some internet access, and visit Nitmiluk National Park, also known as Katherine Gorge.
For my first night in Katherine I stop at Coco’s backpackers, a place that does a special price for cyclists! Of course it is still more expensive than what I usually pay (nothing!) but well, since I’m a cyclist, I’ll go for the cyclist rate!
A guy staying there just bought a second hand bike with a punctured tube, and I open my patch kit for the first time. In Melbourne I carefully bought spare tubes and repair kit, and in the end I used them… for other people! Since I’m getting pretty close to Darwin, I hope things will keep on going on like that.

Now do you remember Clem? Well that’s the other reason I stop in Katherine. While I’ve been going up the centre, Clem has been pedaling like hell the long way around, all along the West coast of Australia. He got to Perth, then up to Broome, and we are actually arriving in Katherine at the same time!
We were supposed to meet and catch up but shamefully, that didn’t happen. Clem broke his phone and he couldn’t contact me when he got in Katherine, and decided to carry on.
I must say I was a bit disappointed that we couldn’t meet although we were both in town. I was especially getting worried as I got word from him a few days ago, and suddenly couldn’t contact him anymore.
But well, I don’t know what I would have done in his place, and Clem is in a big hurry to complete his loop all around Australia, so good luck to him and congratulations for the achievement! As I write these lines now in early June, I can tell you that Clem is on his way to Uluru and is doing pretty good time to get back to Sydney where he started! He even met with Laetitia who stayed in Alice Springs! Australia is not as big as it seems…

Anyway, I spend 4 days in Katherine. Catch up with the blog, catch up with some people I met on the road and who are here as well, catch up with my rest, visit the beautiful gorges at Nitmiluk, and getting ready for the last leg of my trip!

When you are 320km away from your destination and you think “oh that’s nothing, just 2 days ride away!” you know you’ve spent a lot of time in Australia! But actually I won’t be going straight there. Between Katherine and Darwin is the very worthwhile detour into Kakadu National Park. 20,000 sq.km of rainforests, rivers, wetlands and a lot more, home to a big part of Australia’s fauna (and a paradise for crocodiles), and probably home of the first Aboriginal people to have lived on the Australian continent. So it will take me more than 2 days to finally make it to Darwin!

The ride goes on and the adventures are not over!

Running . . . to the pub!

This one might be a bit long but it’s definitely worth reading! Lots can happen in just 2 days!

After watching the Eclipse in the morning, it’s time to get back on the road and carry on the journey. Little did I expect the encounter that was about to happen…

On that same day, in the evening, I come across this caravan stopped on the side of the road. A bit of chat with Rose, the driver, and I learn that a few 100m ahead are Allen and Jane, RUNNING around Australia, followed by their support caravan.
They are from New Zealand, in their 60’s, they are vegans and run (so to speak…) exclusively on raw fruit & veggies, one marathon distance per day, from 1st of January to 31st of December, from Melbourne to Melbourne. I meet them on the road some 200km north of Tennant Creek, they have already run all the way up the East Coast, and across North Queensland here to the Stuart Highway, they are about halfway through!
They are finishing their run of the day and only have a few more km to go. I slow down and we have a bit of a chat in the middle of the road at about 7km/h! Allen comments: “we thought it’d be a good way to see the country”.
We camp together and I am invited for vegan dinner, a nice and healthy avocado salad, yum! As I ask to learn more about their motivations and choices, I learn that Jane has survived a cancer and at that time saw vegan diet as a healthier choice that would help her fight it.
I admire their effort and motivation. They have put together this project and have their food, fuel and shoes (1 pair per 1000km) sponsored. To me they illustrate the difference between difficult and impossible. Whatever it is you want to do, if you start by putting your mind into it, and don’t get overwhelmed by the difficulty, you can do pretty much anything you want!

Click here to check out their website and learn more!

But to make things even better, they tell me about an Irish guy, RUNNING AROUND THE WORLD, who should be some 100km ahead of them, so I should catch up with him the next day.
And indeed, the next day, at a roadside rest area, I meet Tony Mangan, 57, from Ireland, halfway through his run around the world from Dublin to Dublin, that he started in October 2010 (so 2 and a half years ago). He has already run 30,000 km, across Ireland, then from Newfoundland down to the United States, across to California, and then all the way down to Ushuaia, then across New Zealand, and now across Australia’s Red Centre!
I ask him a little bit about his project, he says that he has already cycled around the world, so now he might as well run around it! According to him, your dreams are what’s most important, what you should follow. In Australia he has a support car following him, to cope with the long stretches without water. But he tells me that on some parts of his run he was on his own, with a backpack or a small trailer!

Tony is already in Indonesia as I write these lines almost 1 month after meeting him! He literally out-ran me! You should definitely click here and check out his adventure!!
A cyclist guy meeting three runners in two days. . . the world is not as big as it seems!

I continue my ride and I get to Dunmarra at sunset. We are Saturday and I am 45km away from a place called Daly Waters, which is famous for its character outback pub. (It is also a place of significance on John Stuart’s explorations and has some history concerning Australia’s international flights!)
So night falls and I try to gauge whether it’s worth riding 2h at night to get to the pub, without being sure what time it closes!
Of course I decide to go and I get started on a pitch-black night ride. This time there is no full Moon (remember the Eclipse just happened a few days ago, means the Moon is new!). I have no problem being seen as Red is lit up like a Christmas tree and I wear a hi-viz jacket. There is not a lot of traffic anyway and the freshness of the night is quite enjoyable! I can actually feel that the fresh air flow cools down my water bottles!
Anyway, I eventually get to the famous pub, which is not yet closed. The staff are having a beer outside and they are a bit surprised to see some bearded guy show up on a loaded up bicycle at almost 11 PM at their pub in the middle of the outback! And from there the avalanche starts:

“Do you want a beer?” Sure!
“You must be hungry, I’ll make you a sandwich” All right!
“Another beer?” Can’t refuse that!
And then there is a group of people still having drinks outside
“These guys really want to meet you” ok…
And that’s the best one: this lady stands up and says
“Let’s all put 5$ for Andre and his bike trip!” what??
And here I am with 40$ in my hand, not really understanding what is happening! People keep trading me full beers for my empty ones
And then Rod and Leesa, a couple touring on motorbikes, offer me to sleep in the spare bed they have in their bungalow.
All sorted!

Once again, all I did was to get on my bicycle and pedal! I didn’t ask or plan for any of this to happen! And maybe the way I tell this story makes you feel that I am having a lot of fun all the time. I do have some fun, but it is also pretty hard some times, and I always have to keep myself going. But I must say, if haven’t done so already, that all these things that happen start with a try. Try to go somewhere and see how far you make it. Try to talk to people and see what you can learn. And it really applies to everything you do, you don’t have to be riding a bicycle through Australia! J U S T      T R Y !

Eclipse

North of Alice Springs, the Stuart Highway stretches across vast plains of unlimited horizons, and I don´t tire myself of getting on top of hills and get the view across these vast lands. The road is dotted with rest areas and roadhouses, all spread out about 50 to 100km from each other, and I have nothing to worry about for water, as I never go through the two bottles racked on Red´s frame before the next water tank.

I do have an objective that I had in the back of my mind since the beginning of the trip. I found out about an eclipse of the Sun to happen on the 10th of May, the path of which happened to cross my route, about 600km North of Alice Springs. It is indeed a convenient coincidence. I didn´t know what to expect though because at this longitude, the eclise would happen very early in the morning, and I could be disappointed by cloud cover on the horizon, or simply not seeing anything! But still I wanted to make sure I would be there, so I kept on riding and clocked in as much kms as possible to be on time. It´s hard to go fast and at the same time stop everywhere to read the information signs and find out everything about the Australian Outback!

But I did make it to Tennant Creek on time, and was an easy ride away from the central spot of the Eclipse. It was indeed a bit of an event and quite a few people turned up just to see it. I even learned about a small festival held for the occasion, but I couldn’t find the place. Nevertheless I was here for the Eclipse and the next morning, I did enjoy the wonderful astral performance, with UV-glasses gifted by a friendly eclipse-hunter.

I emptied my mind as I watched the Moon slowly but steadily glide in front of the Sun. The shape of our familiar satellite slowly reveals itself in front of the bright shining disc, eventually leaving just a perfect ring of sunlight, and after a few minutes vanishing again the same way it appeared. The whole process lasts almost 2 hours, and the Moon is right in the middle of the Sun for only a few minutes. The movements are almost imperceptible, but still you can see them right before your eyes. From our human eyes on Earth, just a bright and a dark disc dancing together in the sky. And from what we know, a ball of rock 400,000km from us that happens to pass right in front of a ball of fire 150 million km from us! And for a reason we can’t quite figure out, we are amazed by this performance of Nature, this process we have absolutely no power on, but are able to admire.

I´m still having a bit of a hard time wrapping my head around how everything falls in place together during this trip. You could say I´m very lucky, always at the right place at the right time. But I try to look at the bigger picture. Bad things happen too in life and there is no such thing as pure luck. Anyone´s life is full of opportunities, and “luck” is more of something like your ability to catch them. When I look back on my trip, I find that what has brought me the most things, the best memories, the best encounters, is travelling without expecting anything. Because I´ll be fine on my own, at worst lonely, I don´t expect anything special from the people I meet or the places I go to. I´m just curious and happy to talk and share stories, and when I expect it the least, a lot of help comes. I know that it´s not always as such. People are far from always being good to each other, and you do have to watch your back. But if you take a closer look, you will find that most people are nice. What you get is what you give, so if you smile, you will probably get smiled back to.

 

To The Tropic

I ride out of Imanpa and camp next to the Finke River. The Finke River is the longest watercourse of Australia, and it´s almost always dry. To me that´s one of the main features of the Australian outback: the biggest lake of the country is a dry salt lake, the longest bridge of the country is an abandoned rail bridge, the longest watercourse is a dry river of sand!

I make more interesting encounters as I make my way to Alice Springs. I stop at a camel farm, where I learn a bit about how camels got introduced to Australia. I meet Sam, a Japanese man who works at the farm. 15 years ago, he cycled all the way around Australia, a wild ride of over 24,000 kms! Puts my own trip in perspective. Then I talk to a group of backpackers at a roadhouse, and they give me a contact and place to stay in Alice Springs.

In Alice, I drop my luggage and enjoy a weightless ride to Simpson´s Gap, a nearby feature of the McDonnell Ranges, and it feels like Red is flying with nothing loaded up! I spot another cyclist there, carrying maybe heavier luggage than I usually do. He turns out to be French, and has also ridden 24,000 kms, from Portugal to Armenia, from France to Moscow, from Hanoi to Bali, and now on his way from Darwin to Adelaide! for me that´s 48,000kms by 2 people in 2 days. Quite a lot all of a sudden!

The next day I visit CAAMA Music studio, and meet Tim again. The band is here too as they are going to play at the festival the next day. I get to listen to some music in a studio room. For someone unused to it like me, I can tell you it makes quite a difference! I also meet I get some tips and information about the festival, and prepare to get there the next day.

It´s about 90km to ride out to Ross River, to the East of Alice Springs, where the Wide Open Space festival takes place. I make it in time for the opening of the festival, and for my effort I get in for quite a cheap price! I see the band play once again, this time in front of a different type of crowd! But the experience is as good. After that I enjoy the rest of the festival, a happy get-together of all sorts of people, musicians, performers from Australia and overseas.

I think about how my ride is taking me to lots of unexpected places across the centre of Australia. I remember how many times I heard the “there´s nothing between Adelaide and Darwin” version, and I wish I could tell all these people how wrong they are, how many places there are to see, how many people there are to meet, how many causes, big and small, there are to devote yourself to. Australia is big indeed. It´s huge. But it´s not an empty flat country like one could believe at first impression.

But the cause I devote myself to is my journey, and it´s once again time to go. As I ride back to Alice Springs, I can measure how much the wind influences your speed, as it´s a 3 hours effortless ride back, compared with a 4 hours exhausting ride in against the wind! I pack up my bike with food and get started, heavy as ever, on the long stretch North between Alice Springs and Australia´s Top End, the tropical North. As I get to the marker of the tropic of Capricorn, I meet some people from the festival stopping there for the night, and decide to call it a day as well.

From there on, I will little by little get out of the Red Centre and enter the tropical North, hot, green and wet.

Back to Imanpa

After my visit to the Rock, pretty much halfway through my trip, I head back towards the Stuart Highway. I´m not going straight back though, as I will first visit King´s Canyon, one of the many sights of the West McDonnell Ranges. On the way I see my first Aussie camels, waiting behind fences to take tourists on tours.

It´s full Moon, and I wait for the night to hike up the canyon rim under the gentle moonlight. As I rest in my tent waiting for night to fall, I hear packs of dingoes howling in the distance while the round full moon rises over the horizon. I wonder how bad were-dingoes are compared to were-wolves! Eventually, I start my hike and carefully climb the steep rocks to the top of the cliffs. I enjoy a good breakfast at the top while the sun rises, all alone on the cliffs that will soon get crowded with busloads of visitors. I wander around the cliffs, creeks and weathered sandstone domes that spread across the landscape, making it look like a lost city. It´s then time to go and I return to my high-speed vehicle and get back on the road.

At first my intention was to take a “shortcut”, the Ernest Giles road, a 100km dirt track that cuts straight to the Stuart Highway, avoiding me an extra 140km going the long way around. After the Oodnadatta track, I´m pretty confident I can take another dirt track. However, I find that “sand track” would describe this one better, and I can´t really pedal for more than 50m without being stuck in slippery sands. After a few kms of hard work and not doing much better than walking speed, I decide to turn around and go back.

That`s when I remember about the reggae concert in Imanpa, and it`s just the right day! In a way life probably made this track sandy on purpose, guiding me back to Imanpa on this day. As a bonus, the store, usually closed early on Saturdays, stays open late for this occasion. So I can even treat myself to some nice snacks. And it´s no luxury after having rushed to the community and skipped lunch breaks to make it as early as possible!

I meet new community workers. Nate, an american traveler  is working the store with Keira. And I meet Joel, working for the NPY Women´s Council, one of many aboriginal organizations that look after communities well-being throughout Australia. I am just here for the concert, but am invited to stay over if I want to, sleep in a bed, have a shower and wash my clothes. I was ready to just head off after the concert and camp out, but I start to realize that the less you ask for, the more you get out of simple hospitality. What goes around, comes around. What you give one day, you get back another, and vice versa.

Then it´s time to listen to some local rock and reggae on stage. I discover Sunshine Reggae (now Tjintu Desert Band), and the studio that produces them, CAAMA Music. It is pretty special to listen to the band playing in front of all the children and people of Imanpa, when I think that I´m here by pure chance. I meet Tim from CAAMA who tells me about the Wide Open Space festival near Alice Springs that will happen in a few days, just about when I will be there! Tim has been doing a lot of work with traditional music and culture, in Australia and abroad, and you can find out more on his website.

I end up staying two days in Imanpa. It´s hard to turn down the opportunity of unlimited computer and internet access in such a remote area. After a good rest, talks, and a little insight on aboriginal communities, it´s time to head off and I start to make my way to Alice Springs, my next stop.

U L U R U

After the delicious Italian pasta, it’s time to ride West towards Uluru. I have 250km to get there so, although it looks close on the map, it’s pretty far!

On the way I stop in Imanpa, an aboriginal community that my host in Oodnadatta advised me to visit. The person I got told to look for was not here, but I stop to buy some supplies at the local store, and I meet Keira. She works in the community, and runs the store among other things. I learn a little bit about how things work in the outback and in the aboriginal communities. When I leave, she lets me know that next week a local reggae band comes for a concert, in case I’m around. Imanpa doesn’t really receive many visitors. 5km off the Lasseter highway, none of the traffic going to Uluru turns off to the community.

I get back to the road and keep going. Further down a van stops, the driver met Laetitia before and tells me she is also on her way to Uluru, so we will probably meet there. I keep going a few more kms and camp out some 100km from Yulara, the tourist resort at the entrance of the national park.

The next day i get my first sights of the rock from afar as it reveals itself in the blurry horizon. It sits with majesty on the vast flat plain, looking over the land around with its popular flat and perfect shape. I also see the Kata Tjuta, the sister rock formation to Uluru, much less well-known and equally sacred in Aboriginal culture and mythology. The two landmarks are 50km apart, a distance difficult to gauge on a map or even on this flat featureless landscape.

I have to say that I am in a strange state of mind. Since I left Coober Pedy I have gone a lot faster than I did on the desert tracks or even before when I was travelling with Clem. It feels as if I rushed to the Rock just to see it, but as I am getting closer, I realize that I don’t really know WHAT to do once I finally get there. Besides, on the Lasseter highway I get overtaken by countless tourist buses bringing some of the 300,000 yearly visitors to Uluru, which lets me know I’m not gonna be alone over there! I finally get to the resort where I take a break, and find out that the National Park is protected, has opening and closing times and doesn’t allow camping. Although it seems pretty natural with the tourist flow, I hadn’t thought about that and feel a bit overwhelmed by the too many rules. I feel a bit lost as I wanted SO MUCH to get there, and now that I am, I don’t know what to do. I camped out off the road and slept on it.

The next day I woke up early and went to catch the sunrise behind the rock. As the sky brightens, the rock’s silhouette reveals itself and although I’m still feeling a bit weird, I start to enjoy and understand why I wanted to come here. This place is special. It’s not just a big red rock. You have to bear in mind the meaning it has to the people who have always lived here. And it makes sense when you see it. A perfectly shaped rock in a perfectly flat plain. It inspires respect and humility.

I still don’t feel ready to enjoy my “encounter” with Uluru, and I decide to go straight to the Kata Tjuta. Since I don’t know about these rocks, and thus expect less, I am not afraid to be disappointed and feel lighter-minded about going there. Besides, less people take the extra 100km round trip to Kata Tjuta, it should be fairly quiet. It takes me about 3 hours to get there, and I spend time walking around the rocks, in the “Valley of the Winds”, and spend time enjoying the soothing landscape of these round and rocky domes overlooking the plains.

I make my way back and am back near Uluru before sunset. I meet Laetitia who just arrived there and went to the rock and the cultural centre. I want to get away from the crowds, and I find a spot on the side of the road where to look at the changing colors of the rock as the sun goes down. Then as night comes, I stay and look at the moon and stars rise over it. As everybody has left the park, it is pretty quiet and I can at last enjoy being there and get a feel for the place.

The next day, I finally go to the cultural centre, where you can learn some history and traditions related to the place, and ride my bicycle around the base of the rock. It seems smooth from afar, but its surface is rough and flaky like the bark of a New Zealand Kauri tree. Its base is full of various features, caves where people dwelt and even waterholes that attracted a whole entire fauna. In a dry and harsh land, Uluru provided shelter and water. It makes a lot of sense to me that people consider it so sacred and important.

Upon meeting two young people cycling on their own across Australia, the ranger from the cultural centre invites us to stay over at her place instead of camping out. In some sort of way, Uluru gifts us with hospitality as it always as for the people living close to it. We share stories around dinner and a cup of tea and get some rest. The next day we enjoy a last sunrise, and make our way out of the park. My next destination is King’s Canyon, another geological landmark in the area (well, 300km away), and yet another detour from my planned route!

As I leave I think back on my experience at Uluru. I am happy to have been there, having thought about it for so long. Uluru is a the same time a very sacred place, and a highly touristy spot. That’s a lot of pressure to get a feel for it. It is so important that you don’t know what you are supposed to do, how you are supposed to feel. It is so touristy that you feel a bit rushed. There are rules everywhere to tell you what you can and can’t do, in order to safeguard the area and prevent excesses. But at the end of the day, you just have to enjoy being there. I don’t know why my mind was so clouded these last few days. I was a bit stressed by time I guess. It had been a while since I could give any news. I was seeing time running and thinking that I needed to keep going. I was lacking time to simply enjoy the ride.

I realize that the feeling of not having time causes a lot of stress. It rushes our minds and ideas and gets us confused. Knowing how to take your time in life is something really important. We don’t have infinite time on our hands, and we can’t do everything, go everywhere, meet everyone. We have to always make choices. Decide where to spend time, and therefore where not to spend it, without regrets. Stay or leave? Go or not go? Do or don’t do? Always so hard to figure out, and so confusing because we often want more than we need.

Taking time doesn’t mean spending a lot of it. You don’t need to spend a year sitting in front of Uluru to experience the beauty of it. A minute can be enough, as long as you enjoy that minute fully and dedicate yourself to that moment. Whatever happens, we need to enjoy what we have, and not regret what we miss. That way, we make the most of one of our most precious resources: our time.

Yet another lesson learned on the Long Red Ride!