I thought I was a seasoned traveller. At least half a dozen times per year I’d head to Tullamarine airport bound for some new destination. It had become a constant in my life. Covid pulled me up in my tracks. A few months at home became a year and then some. Plans kept getting crushed, dreams left in tatters but at least I hadn’t got sick.
After planning to ride from Noosa last year I tentatively rebooked but with a healthy level of doubt whether my plans would again be scuttled. Finally departure day arrived and I headed out to a near empty Tullamarine. Bike box, pannier bag loaded and a face mask. I was ready to accept the new normal. The face mask would stay in place till I left the Sunshine Coast airport six hours later. Not a smile seen the whole way yet I know most were ecstatic to be finally escaping our Covid restrictive life style.
I set to work in the airport car park tearing apart the cardboard box containing my mode of transport for the next two weeks. All was intact although by the time I had pumped the large tyres and aligned my chain I was a lather of sweat and as greasy as an apprentice mechanic. I left the airport hand basin with a grimy ring of grease and my two water bottles brimming with rather questionable roof gathered rainwater.
One hour after arrival I was away my front wheel wobbling nervously as I found balance on my loaded bike. I circled the airport then headed North towards Noosa 30 klms away. The afternoon sun seeming to immediately rub the tightness from my shoulders and legs. This was perfect weather for cycling and a smile broke out on my face. I’m familiar with David Lowe Way it’s rolling hills and brief glimpses of the sea. Before I know it I’m on top of the hill looking down on Noosa Heads an unofficial Melbourne outpost throughout most of our Southern winter.
I do the traditional Noosa thing early the next morning. A walk of the National Park then a swim in the warm sea. The years slip from my body as the sun drys me off. I catch up with my sister for a coffee and meet the delightful Taxi her new schnauzer. Much has happened since she arrived up here to live. Eventually I have to return to my bike well aware that there is a long day of climbing to Maleny up,up in the hinterland. The sun is warm but the gradient is what really has me sweating. It’s a steady, steady climb and very different from my regular pancake flat Beach Road. The sun goes down and suddenly I’m cold.
Frosty start up in the hills with a big breakfast to fuel me back down to the coast. I stay cold on the long downhill towards to Landsborough then I get into a rhythm on the undulations to the coast and into Margate. My old friends are at a wedding tonight so I miss the chance of a catch-up and wander about till I find a place with plenty of people and a spare table. Seafood, beer and a sharp white wine then back up the hill to bed.
Sunday morning Jill and Ray take me for a drive around their new neighbourhood. It’s the perfect showcase morning, sea sparkling, Sunday market for those in need of a new crystal or wind chime. We exercise the dogs, sip coffee then head back home. I enjoy just sitting about catching up on a few years of news. A big extended family Sunday night dinner of salmon and apple crumble has us all content. Jill and I ring a travel friend in England which brings us back to earth as Covid continues to leave everyone in England captive in their own homes.
Today I need my navigation tools need to be on full alert. That includes me the bluntest tool in the box. I’m confident that they will guide me through the middle of Brisbane but I won’t celebrate till days end. There are a few retreats but overall Strava and my Wahoo bike computer take all of the guesswork out of my complex day leaving me confident enough to look about and admire the Brisbane river and ever changing skyline.
Into The Big 4 caravan park late afternoon with enough time to clean my gear and shuffle towards a fast food complex. Yes they are all there together, McDonalds, Taco Bill, Carl Jnr. I’m unsure of my meal quality but very confident of quantity. I find the local pub and sit alone as every other patron is in the zone playing the pokies. Food gets a tick but the vibe is decidedly… loser.
The Highway hum doesn’t let up throughout the night and at first light I escape looking forward to a late breakfast in the middle of Surfers. I am not ready for the mass of hotel towers doing their best Florida impersonation. Sadly I ride in shade for km after km as the Gold Coast towers blot any chance of seeing the beach and early morning sunrise.
My breakfast sits heavy in my stomach as I turn and begin climbing up to Murwillumbah. It’s brutal to start then flattens off at about the same time I’m sucking in all the air I can get. I cross the border into NSW a cattle grid and a Government camera the only acknowledgement I’ve crossed the line. Eucalyptus trees follow me along the ridge line before I descend into fertile river flats. Sugar cane is king in these parts and it waves gently along both sides of the road all of the way into town. Jane has thoughtfully booked me a massage and he has to work hard to get his money stretching and rubbing my rather tight leg muscles and knotted shoulder muscles.
My rest day is a mixture of carpentry chores, yes I can still weave some magic and investigating the town. A visit to the local art gallery and then a foreign film on the the corruption in the Romanian hospital system. I leave the old cinema shoulders slumped and only half a bottle of wine and highly recommended Thai food lifts my spirits.
I’m on the hippie trail the following morning. Names like Mullumbimby, Brunswick Heads and Byron Bay come and go. I am the only guy in town without dreadlocks and lice. Truth be told these towns are no longer the domain of hippies. The prices would make most people’s eyes water and has driven the average joe away. A night of luxury in Broken Head beach where a friend is celebrating her birthday with family. Jane and I gatecrash the luxury compound with its maze of isolated function areas and cubicles. It’s beautiful and oh so comfortable and I have to harden myself for the week ahead.
Sunrise on the beach sees the surfers drawn towards the crashing waves but not before doing some downward dog stretching exercises on the wet sand. What happened to the days of a carton of flavoured milk or a bong on the tailgate of the panel-van ?
Jane drops be down the road at Yamba and I have a beautiful afternoon following the Clarence river inland. I’m never far away from this broad, slow moving river. Prawn trawlers thud along with a slow stream of pelicans showing considerable interest in the trawlers catch. Only a few months ago this river like many in NSW flooded and the debris still litters the riverbank. I meander backwards and forwards crossing on a couple of small ferries then it’s Grafton, a service town for the whole valley area.
Up before the dawn it will be my longest day today. Bags downstairs and carrying my bike out ready to start. Puncture… a slow leak overnight. I head back to my room under better lighting and with a basin to find the leak. I’ve lost some time and the tyre is not as inflated as I’d like. I expect to find somewhere for breakfast after an hour but my route away from the freeway means I am a long way from civilisation.
Half asleep I almost roll over a snake which looks big and troublesome but I think a car had sadly caught him recently. Don’t get me wrong Im not a fan but I hate to see wild animals killed by the road. I see or smell road kill regularly. Breakfast, fit for human consumption comes at around 50 kms and I’m starving.
I spend much of the day looking for a shop that might have a stand pump to increase my tire pressure. Eventually I spot a guy with two bikes on the roof of his car at a petrol station. My speed increases accordingly. I also meet my first other touring cyclist. Toby is a smarter guy than me. He’s riding from Sydney and is finishing in Grafton with a train back to Sydney. He’s enjoyed a tail wind the whole way. I’ve pointed my nose into a light head wind, luck of the draw. Still it was good to see someone else out enjoying the countryside.
Macksville has not woken up when I am lifting my bike out of the breakfast room and rolling along some coastal backroads in heavy sea mist. It soon lifts and the parrots and budgerigars squawk and wheel overhead.
As good as the backroads are it means my food opportunities are slim. I load up in Kempsey at an old style local diner. The farming families waddle out six at a time having caught up with the weekly news before heading back into the hills.
I end up in those very same hills thanks to Strava thinking I needed to hone my mountain bike skills. Gradually the track got narrower and then there was no track. I should have turned back but that decision was made for me when I hit a log in long grass. I was roughly dumped into the bush and the sudden stop has hurt my groin. I limped into Port Macquarie as the sun was fading. I’ll just have to take it easy.
I leave Port Macquarie as the morning surf starts to get busy. I don’t know who is actually running the country but at every surf break down the coast there has been a large enthusiastic gathering out in the water. It’s easy to forgive the region is most people’s idea of paradise. It’s a long slog to Forster with few opportunities for food, I decide to treat myself with scones. That’ll be nice I thought. I’ll even go the black tea for fear I’m drinking too much coffee. Little did I know my single scone would be cooked from scratch and that there were about ten others in front of me. Good scone ? Yes but 45 minutes had me boiling harder than their kettle. Their teabag mug of tea arrived after the scone.
Forster, these little towns are all retirement villages and slow moving everything. I wake to another slow puncture then before my ride gets truly underway I get another. I don’t let it ruin my day but it’s got potential. I wander alongside the Myall lakes all within earshot of the ocean. The lakes are overflowing with floodwaters from a few months ago.The brackish water still struggling to escape out to sea. Many of the National Park roads in these soggy areas are still closed. Lunch at Bulahdelah you’d be mad not to but still surprised to get a truly authentic Indonesian lunch. A nice change from roadside sandwiches and reheated everything pastry. Choice is slim between main towns and my map shows me nothing other than questionable petrol station fodder all the way to Raymond Terrace.
I’m miles away and in a mediative groove when I think I hear a voice at my right ear. Suddenly Jarrod is against my shoulder, my front wheel quivers in surprise. Where did he come from ? “Just visiting my Mum” he announces. His Malvern Star gravel bike is clicking along at a nice pace. We fall into conversation and the next hour just melts away. Sadly it finishes as suddenly as it started. I get another puncture thanks to some truck tyre steel. Jarrod heads for home, exactly where that is I don’t know.
Concerns of reaching Sydney for my train are evaporating and I am able to relax enough to venture the more scenic route where possible. Newcastle was a surprise and and a very appealing bike path along the waterfront is a welcome reprieve from clogged roads during morning peak hour. The surf glistens and an overnight shower has the whole area looking as fresh as a daisy. I climb around the Newcastle headlands as thundering surf pounds the shore. Some surfers seem to glide as one with the waves whilst others are simply swallowed whole and spat out floundering onto the beach.
I push on along a narrow spit of land with tranquil lakes on my right and not far beyond the sand dunes the the sea ever restless. It’s not until I rude over a bridge at The Entrance that I get a chance to see how vulnerable this piece of coastline is to erosion. A short break and I’m ready to reach Gosford tonight. It leaves me with under 100 kms into Sydney.
Kevin Ellwood another touring cyclist lives in Sydney. I met Kevin online when touring Taiwan a few years ago. We’d never met but today that will all change. His suggestion to catch a ferry from Ettalong Beach to Palm Beach wasn’t on my radar. Not only did I get a half hour reprieve on the local ferry but it left me on the much quieter North Shore beaches. I’m guided to Manly beach by a friend of Kevin’s strategically positioned along the way. We chew the fat on all things touring whilst sitting like lizards in the Winter sun at Manly. I can put my map away as Kevin takes me through alleyways and a just opened Barangaroo bike paths all the way to Central station.
All day I’d been aware that Melbourne was potentially going into another Covid lockdown. At the station the destination board still says my train is as planned. I box my bike and wait. An hour before departure there is a message on my phone telling me the train will terminate at Albury. The train will not leave N.S.W. The whole experience of being lulled to sleep by the swaying trains momentum is going to be limited. I and the others will be tipped out at Albury at the uncivilised time of 4am to board a bus for the journey through Victoria. I wake to a crackly intercom merrily telling me good morning and advising me to prepare for our arrival. The changeover is done in silence. Face-mask in place I pick up my bike box and carry it to a waiting bus and then quickly settle in for the last four hours into Melbourne. My head drops as we drive into a cold, grey overcast city.
I carry my bike box into a quiet corner of the station and quickly rebuild my bike. It’s morning peak hour but no one is about. The city is bare of commuters, the station steps completely empty. I ride the normally busy footpaths down to the Yarra river then wind my way next towards Port Phillip bay and home. Two weeks has gone in the blink of an eye.