Thereabouts 1 – Port Macquarie to Uluru

 

The first thereabouts ride came together all at the last minute - as these things do. We had a date locked in for a few months beforehand but we hadn't properly considered exactly where we would go. All we knew was that we wanted to ride through a desert or over a mountain range. Ideas about different routes around the world had been floating around but in reality we had little money, and lacked the logistical skills to organise it. With less than a month until we were meant to leave we decided on Uluru - purely because it was an iconic location everyone knew, which made it easier to explain when people asked where we were going. Once we arrived however, it became pretty clear how special that place is. 

We needed a support car with us because Lach was in the build up for the 2014 season and some of the distances between towns were just too far to get away with if he still wanted to perform well in January. So we knew we would have to drive parts of the way. As it turns out no one we knew had a passion for driving long distances at a slow speed, and watching two people ride in the heat for two weeks over Christmas - for free. Leaving this request until a couple of weeks out we were up shit creek without a driver. Less than a week out and for a few bob we managed to convince Chris Varcoe an old coach and athlete mentor from Port Macquarie who was passionate enough about the project to call a few things off at work and persuade his wife that for the next few weeks he should be driving to Uluru. 

Unable to secure a job, a big sports fan himself and someone who forgot how to ride a bike a long time ago our very dear mate Scott Mitchell came on board only two days before we set off. His motivation, aside from not having a job, was that he was intrigued as to what would happen. Knowing Gus had only been riding a month he predicted a meltdown and wanted to bare witness. A producer, but one who had never shot anything before, his desire to record every moment lead Scott to shoot the entire documentary by himself - no mean feat. 

The total distance was about 2,500km of which we rode nearly 2,000km over 12 days. We started in our home town of Port Macquarie, 400km north of Sydney, and headed directly west through Walcha, Gunnedah, Cobar, and Broken Hill. We then crossed into South Australia and went down to Peterborough, Blinman in the Flinders Ranges, up to Marree at the beginning of the Oodnadatta Track, then to Coober Pedy. We hit the Northern Territory and stopped at Kulgera, then finally made our way to Yulara and Uluru.

 
 

The Characters - 

Below are the characters we met and some of our own experiences from the first thereabouts journey:

Trevor 'Snowy' Harris - Walcha

Trevor has lived in Walcha since 1988 with his wife Phyllis. He is originally from Bourke. Trevor never learned to read or write, and worked as a shearer for most of his life. Trevor taught himself to weld while trying to overcome alcoholism. His house is surrounded by his sculptures, that he has made for nearly 30 years. Each piece takes up to six months. Diagnosed with prostate cancer, Trevor ignored medical advice to operate, to take up a vegetarian diet. Doctors gave him 6 months. He has now lived 3 years with the cancer.

 

Andrew Miedecke - Port Macquarie

We have known Andrew since we were born. As our next door neighbour we grew up with his boys racing motorbikes and paddock bashers. Banned from our motorbikes because I (Gus) ran over his eldest son, knocking him unconscious, and with nothing else to do I took to cycling "because it was the next fastest thing."

Charlene Murphy - Gingers Creek Half Way House

Charlene owns, operates and lives with her family at the Gingers Creek Half Way House. Situated 100km east of Walcha and 100km west of Port Macquarie despite its beauty Charlene is sick of driving her young daughter 200km to school everyday and wants to sell however they are having trouble as most people feel the isolation is just too great.

Luke - Gunnedah

Luke was working his first job in Coal Seam Gas in Gunnedah, having worked in mining before that. Luke was living in the trailer park, along with the other workers, for the length of his 19 day contract. The day we met Luke, he had been at the pub because the B.O.P was broken, preventing drilling. A B.O.P. Neutralises 'kicks' of pressure that can happen when drilling. 300,000psi 'kicks' would kill anybody in the mine. Luke is from Parkes. His girlfriend is studying to be a teacher, and he travels, earning money to provide for them both. His most serious prior relationship was with a German woman from Munster who he met working on a crocodile farm in Darwin. He even travelled to Germany to spend time with her and her family, but ultimately she was too career focused. He is still in touch with her on facebook. There was a girl's birthday party at the pub that night, but he had retired to the trailer park for the afternoon with a six pack of wild turkey and cola pre-mixed drinks when we met him. He had not experienced any negative reactions from locals about coal seam gas, but says some of his co-workers have been abused and had objects pelted at their cars. He said he expected Gunnedah to be another shit hole town, but was surprised to find that it was quite nice.

Rebecca (centre) - Cobar

Rebecca (centre) and her friends are all born and raised in Cobar. She is 19. Rebecca's friends had just received redundancies from WesTrac for between seventeen and twenty-five thousand dollars and had been celebrating at The Great Western Hotel since 10:00am. Rebecca wants to be a teacher, and recently worked on a mission outside of Alice Springs at the local school. Her favourite things to do in Cobar are: pig hunting, skinny dipping in the old open cut mine and going to B&S balls

Claude 'Santa' - Peterborough

Claude is ‘Santa’. Since he turned 18 he has drunk an average of 19 pints (SA ) per day 6 days per week. It used to be 7 days a week however due to a declining township Sunday trading was introduced, cutting opening hours. Now he’s 68, and thinks he better slow down. He’s switching to XXXX. Working on the continental railway for the SA government for 52 years he see’s this as his greatest achievement and take immense pride in connecting the country. Ask him anything about the railways. He now lives with his sister after three failed marriages on the outskirts of town. He enjoys camping and drinking. He has never visited the flinders ranges, despite living less than 70km away, he never felt the need, upon our recommendation he may consider taking a camping trip there in the near future with his sister. His favourite time of the year is Christmas, as his natural beard makes him a remarkable local Santa Clause.

Chris Varcoe - Blinman

Chris Varcoe has lived a thousand lives. Corporate head hunter, youth worker, and life coach to name a few. He's sung hymns with both Peter Garrett and Tony Abbott. He’s ridden the European alps. He’s built and then slept in an igloo. He also owns a lotus Espirit V8. Every morning he prayed for our safety and good conditions. And they came. But Chris Varcoe had never listened to Rap music, drunk a cocktail or had a Bourbon before he came on the road with us. It's fair to say we exchanged ideas about the world. Chris drove, massaged and maintained us as we pushed across the country. He never complained and he always asked how we felt. One lesson he gave that really stuck in our minds is that a skate board, an ocky strap, a car and a set of balls can have you travelling quite quickly down Barndioota rd in the South Australian outback.

 Travis - Marree

We got the impression Travis was on the run, not from the law, but from a former life. Once sporting a firearms ban, and now a vast collection of remote control and Scaletrix cars Travis’ life is an interesting one. A total gentleman, he took us under his wing, and with a can of Bundy showed us how to work a 308. Proper.

Scott Donald Mitchell - Marree

A true legend, he's only guy we know who's forgotten how to ride a bike. 

 Andy (with his dog) - Marree Pub

Andy is the manager at The Marree Hotel, one of the two staff there in the off-season. That is the summer. From Essex, Andy was schooled at Harrow, and then Cambridge before joining the Royal Air Force where he worked as a cyber security and intelligence analyst. He founded a private business working on security for major firms across Europe, but was driven to an anxious break down. He sold his business and disappeared to Australia, back packing for over a year before he arrived at the Maree pub. On his first night, he asked the owner whether he could give him a hand behind the bar for the night, and he hasn't left. He's now spent three years living in Marree.

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Unknown - Kulgera

We ran into this gentleman filling his lime green, and immaculate R/T Charger at the Kulgera petrol station. He had just finished the car and was taking it for its maiden voyage from Alice Springs down the Stuart to Adelaide. His name escapes us unfortunately although we do remember that when we wiki'd him later that evening we discovered he was a star on Home and Away during the 1980's.

Lach – Oodnadatta track

It was 5:30am when the Sun began to spill out across the stone covered desert earth and Gus and I were already 20km out of Maree. As those first rays hit my skin they stood only to enhance the hangover which already had my head in a vice and confirm the fire was well and truly lit inside the furnace that is the Oodnadatta track.

For once, however, I welcomed the dull thud, it was a physical reminder of the night before. An unbelievable blur of gun shooting, car driving, beer pouring and tale swapping. All fueled on west end draught, and a questionable local wine. A night you’d barely believe if I told you, and a night I won’t ever forget.

What I had forgotten as I uncorked another bottle of the unknown ale not eight hours earlier was the enormity of the day we were about to undertake. The Oodnadatta track was struck from our route in the week leading up to the trek. It was deemed to dangerous. However, on a whim, and perhaps a false sense of invincibility, two days prior I suggested we put It back in, and who was Gus back down? I believed It was just the sort of epic challenge we were looking for.

As the sun rose it revealed a wide, rolling, corrugated dirt highway that stretched past the horizon into an unknown red desert. I spun a quick 360 as I stood taking a piss. We were finally in the middle of no-where. Gus and I were alone, trekking across one of the harshest landscapes on earth.

We didn’t speak a word to each other for almost 5hrs. We rode on with an unspoken sense for each others mental and physical condition, the type only brothers share. Without utterance, when the head wind spun around into a cross tail we pinned it at 50kim/h. Swapping turns, surfing the corrugations and washouts of this frontier land with disregard, our hands at each others back. It was a battle against the immovable, with no one to bare witness. Cycling in its purest form.

As we pumped out of the saddle, cresting another roller, from the mirage appeared an acrid, acidic, extra terrestrial landscape, bound by a black poisonous ring of salt. We had hit the shore of lake Eyre, The Dead Zone. I was, for a reason still unknown to me, overcome with emotion, An amazing mixture of fatigue, elation and companionship washed over me as I tried to figure out what it was we were doing out here. We stopped for a few minutes. Sitting in silence on the edge of the worlds largest inland sea, staring at its vast nothingness. Then we pushed on.

The next hours were more painful and taxing. The furnace had reached melting point. It was now spitting wind in our face with more ferocity than ever, a warning against the harsher conditions ahead. The corrugations became more severe and the washouts more regular. It became impossible to ride as a pair, and we were forced to spread out and go it alone. Our two figures cutting a lonely path through the impenetrable desert, slowly being ground down.

As I slowed to a stop, the sharp clack of my cleat signaling the end of our jaunt, my ears began to ring in the silence. My joints, legs and head were aching. We both sat in the gravel at the side of the road. Suddenly out here I felt at home. I could have sat all afternoon. A new clarity of thought enveloped me, I knew exactly what we were doing out here. We were finally using the bike for the purpose I had always intended and it was having a profound impact on me.

Gus – The Road to  Yulara

“Fuck it!” I’d just missed another road sign indicating how far left until to Yulara, our days end and final stop before Uluru. I slipped back in behind the camping trailer I’d become so famliar over the last two weeks. My head sunk a little lower, I tried to focus, the flapping black plastic tarp whipping in the relentless wind. I was beginning to doubt if I’d make it. ‘If only that fucking plastic wouldn’t flap. Fuck it’s loud. Had it always been flapping like that? Who the fuck loaded the bags at the front? Don’t they know it creates a vacuum making the tarp flap like a fuckin’ helicopter back here?’ I was losing it. I tried closing my eyes, and taking a deep breath. Hoping in vain to slip into a peaceful painless groove. It was futile, I knew it would be. There’s no escaping the pain, there’s no welcoming it either. You’d be lying if you said you did. There’s only tolerating it.

“315km was 315km.” I told myself. I knew that in the same way I knew we’d averaged 50km/h since we hit the 150km marker. And I knew, because I’d done the math a hundred times, that in less than half an hour we’d be finished. Yet every time I’d missed one of those signs a panic set in. I just needed to see a physical number. Just to be sure we were getting closer to the end, to be sure my mind wasn’t failing me. It was ridiculous, and it was a indication of my withering mental state. The road signs were winning, 12 grueling days in the saddle, with my pro-tour kid brother, and I’d barely slipped up. Now, with the end in sight it was the road signs that would grind me down to dust, leaving me in the middle of the desert.

‘Y – 15’. Yulara 15km. Thank God. I knew it couldn’t have been much further, but just to see the proof was an overwhelming relief. I glanced at Lach, he adjusted his knicks, slipping back half a length before popping out of the seat, ’da! da! da!’, he danced out of the seat gliding back up alongside me. It’s something I wouldn’t have dared do, I was sitting so close to the back of the trailer my tyre had burnt a solid black rubber mark across its back. If the slight wind there was slowly cracking my resolve, the comparable cyclone half a length behind would crush my soul in an instant. “I’ve been thinking, we should start...” Lach began, his mouth continued to move but I could no longer make out his words. I channeled my gaze on the endless black stream of tarmac flooding out from beneath the trailer in hope of clarity. I slipped into a trance

It wasn’t until Lach moved from beside me into the wind and accelerated that I was brought back to reality. When you’ve been on the road together that long, all goes without saying. I knew exactly what was up. Empty, and as I had so many times already I pushed on the pedals and slowly clambered up to his wheel and tucked in. ‘Y-10’. Yulara 10km. Fuck it, It was the one final time to go blow for blow, like we used to.

I can’t really explain how the body is capable of such torture, of being on the brink of shutting down for days then turning around and giving you another ten percent. I think it was something in the fact that we in it together, and we weren’t doing this for any one else or for any gain. We were simply testing out how far we could push ourselves, just to see what would happen. ‘Lets just see what happens’ – we let the road take us, challenge us and transport us to where ever it had in mind. There were no motives, no prejudices, no expectations.

I don’t know how fast we covered those last ten kilometers, or if I was even able to take a single turn in the wind, because my mind draws a blank on the occasion. But, regardless, It didn’t matter. We’d long since abandoned our HR monitors, and our power meters. We’d discovered the true power of riding our bikes lay in the story and not the numbers.  

I’ve come to realize that each of our lives is an experiment. We are given a hypothesis based off of custom, hereditary, history, morality and personality. We plot our ‘method’ but instead of letting the experiment run its course we constantly adjust it to keep inline with the result we have hypothesized, the results we tell ourselves we want. We think we know where we are headed. We tug hard on the wheel with blistered hands, as we try to maintain our co-ordinated path. But we are, essentially, just making guesses. Some educated, some instinctual, and some rebellious. We have no way of knowing exactly how our method will carve its course in time. We are just being taken along for the ride, whether we resist it or not. The more we fight the ride, the less personal it becomes. The less our own genuine experience and more the more contrived, and structured one of our hypotheses.

As I reflect on it all now, the hardest part of the journey wasn’t that day to Yulara, surviving only by the little green road signs counting down the km, Or the wondering when my body would finally give out as Lach wound up the pressure over those last 10km. It was not being able get up and go to the bathroom on the flight home when the seatbelt sign was switched on. You see, somewhere along the way we had completely let go. The experiences we had in the desert opened our eyes to another side to life, another way of understanding the world. In those two weeks we shed ourselves of society and it was this little red warning light, forcing me in my seat as the flight attendant ran through the location of our emergency exits, that signified our return to it. We were no longer playing by our rules, we were no longer in the wilderness with the castaways, and we were no longer letting the road take us wherever it wanted. We were back in reality, and we were being forced to hypothesize.

Scott – The Characters

“This one at the moment,” Safina pointed to one of the tiled photographs of African women behind her, tight cornrows spilling into beaded shoulder-length braids. The most popular cut among indigenous girls in Alice Springs.

After 14 years in Alice working as a nurse, Safina had set up the first African hair salon in town, 12 months before we met her. For the new African refugee population, it was the only lounge, bar and ad-hoc governing body for the whole community. For the Aboriginal girls, it was the spark that set off the new, African, styles now flooding the town.

We walked out the door of Safina’s ten minutes after we’d entered off the street, lured by tiled photographs of Afro hair styles. Safina asked us to stay, they were about to start the fifth day straight of drinking and dancing in honour of Nelson Mandela’s passing. But it was another story I couldn’t have.

Covering somewhere between two and five hundred kilometres every day, people end up a long way behind you. Only three days and over one thousand kilometres ago, I’d had a similar ten minutes with Jack, a twenty one year old from Ballarat, who had moved to Williams Creek in South Australia because he didn’t like having neighbours.

Williams Creek is a town of four people, and the biggest cattle station on earth. It has fifteen aircraft, though god knows who flies them. The mayor -- Trevor Wright -- is self-appointed, owns every building in the town and wants to secede from South Australia to the Northern Territory.

Before Jack, there were the Afghans in Marree, whose families had lived in Australia for over 150 years, brought here by the commonwealth to man the caravans of camels that supplied the outback before the days of locomotive engines. Now the Afghans hunted Kangaroos to save themselves a 300 kilometre drive to the nearest supermarket, and had families interwoven with the local indigenous people.

And Before the Afgans I’d passed by stories of junkyards full of gyrocopters and landspeed record cars, of the railway workers of Maryborough, the touring balladeers of Broken Hill, the redundant Filipino WesTrac workers of Cobar, the hens nights of Gunnedah and Trevor ‘Snowy’ Harris of Walcha. Snowy was 12 days and 2,755 kilometres away by now, and my half an hour with him, was probably the only one I’ll ever have.

‘We’ve got to be up by 5:00am’, The boys were already on the road, they’ll be needing water by now. I was on a bungee chord attached to the back of my two friends, on their adventure. And after the fifth or sixth person, each of whom I loved immediately, I’d sometimes resent that chord that would tighten and inevitably drag me back into the Mitsubishi fourwheel drive and out onto the tarmac.

The roads weren’t a tactile experience for me. I didn’t push myself across the Oodnadatta track. For me, the people were my adventure, and as soon as I found them, I’d lose them. The bungee chord only stretching so far, before the morning alarm, another two dozen eggs cracked and the quadruple strength aeropress coffee guzzled.

Angus and Lachlan, though, were perfectly prepared for the routine of our chaotic travelling training camp. They had been choosing their bodies, their sport, their professions, their ambitions over comfort since the age of ten or twelve.

I always believed that capability, would come to me through experience. If I threw myself into adventure, danger, decadence, learning, creativity, work, I would inevitably through the passage of time, just acquire the characteristics of maturity: decisiveness, graft, responsibility.

That attitude had taken me, one year earlier to a town called Karha on the Syrian border, where I barely shot a frame. I couldn’t shrug off the weight of anxiety, concern and ambition to do a single interview.

Now, their attitude had me sitting on 30-40 hours of footage, from 3,000 kilometres across Australia over 13 days. Me, the only person I’ve ever heard of who forgot how to ride a bicycle.

By the time I promised Safina I’d be back soon with some beers, knowing we were all too exhausted and that more interviews had to be shot, I only wanted to do one thing: buy the biggest tupperware container I could find, fill it with margarita and return to the caravan park. I spent the last afternoon extracting as much as I could from the best characters I could find. The three of them had no kilometres to do that day.