I’d done a trip with BikeS.A back in 2015. It was their annual tour through the magnificent S.A wine regions. I met Marek and Libby from Melany, Queensland half way through that tour. We bonded, not over bicycle stories but at the legendary Penfolds winery and a chance to drink a sample glass of Grange Hermitage. It was the realisation that what happened off the bike was as important as spinning the wheels and the start of a long term friendship.
Our last night in Adelaide before heading to Port Augusta was alfresco Italian food, smooth Italian wine, a bed of crisp linen and total silence in my hotel room. The exact opposite of a week of sleeping on the ground with 120 others in tents nearby after cycling all day. I would think back fondly to that night of creature comforts.
The next morning I drove with Paul and Louis the final three hours to the starting point for the ride in Port Augusta. No sooner had I changed into my cycling gear than the mayor bid us farewell from his fine city and we were away towards the metropolis of Quorn 40 kms away.
It was the perfect distance to stretch the legs after being cooped up in a car. Now to negotiate “Geoff’s shower and toilet block” a semi trailer converted to what the sign says. The shower block was always a cloud of clammy steam and a breeding ground for tinea. With clothes sticking to your still damp body I headed off to reacquaint myself with tent building. A skill which will be honed and streamlined over the next eight days.
The best part of each day is sitting around after our ride. Meeting other riders from far off parts of Australia all drawn together by their love of cycling. A couple of beers, maybe a glass of South Australia’s fine wines and a hearty meal put together by a gaggle of country women in each town we ride into. There were two masseurs in the camp too if you needed.
My first night in the tent didn’t go well. The guys manning the bar drank all the profits after we went to bed then turned on their music till they were chased down the road. Not long after a party started even further down the road. In fact a long way down the road but if you have a quality sound system you can wake a whole campground from a km away. And they did. Finally the music stopped, the cloud cover lifted and the temperature plummeted. I lay in my lightweight sleeping bag shivering in every layer of clothes I could find. The bag is good for 8c the specification tells me… it was 3c and that’s not good enough. Every day till we head home I shall beg the truck drivers for a packing blanket to wrap around my sleeping bag. It works with two layers of clothes, a wooden hat and earplugs but I would scare small children.
Another regular start to each morning was the over joyous sound of Tara, the yoga instructor taking a creaking mob of cyclists through a range of moves guaranteed to leave them misshapen. Salute to the sun be damned as her call to the morning pierced the thin walls of my tent. I was simply struggling to unfold my stiff body after lying in a small tent for nine hours.
As if by numbers I would mechanically fold and stuff my sleeping bag, deflate pillow and mattress, remove bags from tent and start pulling pegs. By the time I was awake I was ready to stumble to the breakfast area. But first I needed to see my main man Rory, the proprietor of the coffee truck which followed us each day. Or did we follow Rory ? I quickly built up a hefty ledger to pay at the end of the tour. Would I be able to outride him on my bike. Not without caffeine. I then moved onto muesli, toast in various shades of brown and was ready for the day’s ride ahead.
The following day’s trip notes were read each evening by Russell, the tour director from BikeSA. He would skim over particular parts of the days ride preferring to linger on the vistas, the downhills and the quality of S.A roads. Sketchy, patchy, rutted, corrugated and ‘walk this bit’ were words to look out for. My gravel skills were not able to match the many mountain bikers on the trip but I didn’t come off either although luck played it’s part.
One hundred kms in a day on gravel is a far harder push than bitumen. Thankfully there were sections of bitumen each day to allow my body to stop shaking. Some sections of corrugation left me unsure if my teeth would ever bite into a bread roll again. Worse was I didn’t have the skills to stop or ride over such a punishing track even if I’d wanted. Things improved dramatically when I released some pressure from my tyres. Finally it was bearable. Quorn to Hawker, 100 kms tick…
Tents up, shower away the stiffening body, then head into The Hawker hotel built in the 1880s to drink a couple of cold beers. The soul revived I’m ready to discuss dinner. As always the local bustling woman’s auxiliary loads us up with carbs.
There was a sad announcement last night. One of the thirty plus volunteers on the tour, a guy called Norm passed away in his sleep. He was 90 years old and had ridden around town after helping to set up camp. He just didn’t wake in the morning. That’s a life well lived but still showed everyone our vulnerability and reason to live every day to the full.
The Flinders Ranges is a dramatic region of rugged circling mountains with deep dry creek beds gouged into the dark red earth. The gorges were often adjacent to our gravel route with the legendary river gums, rocky creek beds and backdrop of purplish mountains depicted so well by Hans Heysen, the Painter. Somehow his painting capture the essence and filtered light of the region better than most photographs I’ve seen. More than once I had a chance to see this landscape up close and slow as I pushed my bike through boulders and tyre biting loose sand.
Pinachilna was a remote stop one night. The pub doesn’t normally open early in the week but made exception for our large group. The pub is a classic staring out at the weed covered railway line that passed through here many years ago. After the railway line there is nothing stretching as far as the eye can see. As the sun set and the lights on the pub illuminated the front porch we sat about drinking and staring out into the darkness. It didn’t take long for the cold fingers of the desert to drive us all inside.
We cut across the flat lands the following morning heading towards the ABC range in the distance. Evidently there are 26 peaks each given a letter in the alphabet. The cold headwind gives us time to think about this although I’m just happy to feel the mountains block out the wind. The flinty surface of the gorge sparkles with the early morning suns reflection. Soon our early start evaporates as caravans and 4 wheel drives begin rumbling over the dirt kicking a fine film of talcum powder into the air on each corner. By the finish of this stage the sweat and dust have us looking like we’ve spent the day in a mine. I can hear the large number of feral goats perched high in the gorge laugh through into their equally dusty beards.
We are close to Wilpena Pound and a rest day. The gravel road into the pound gets rougher and rougher. I’m feeling weary and know any small lapse of concentration will have me flying over the handlebars. The corrugations are bone jarring and the sand ready to unload me if I don’t ride fast enough. I just hang on, try not to hold on too tight. A few wrong turns and an extra few kms but I haven’t lost any skin. Happy to get everything washed but not so happy when I find the fence I’ve hung my wet clothes on has attracted the notorious bindi. A prickle that will scratch my skin all day if I don’t pick them off. Instead of a cold beer I find myself methodically plucking hundreds from every article of clothing.
Our rest day is celebrated with a cooked breakfast eaten at leisure. The sun doesn’t come out at all and a sprinkle of rain barely wets the ground. The afternoon is spent at the old homestead checking out the one hundred year old out buildings. Theses old stone buildings were used to forge horse shoes, a saddle room and stables, another for food stores with shelving suspended from high above to thwart the pesky mice and rats.
It’s taken me some days but I’ve worked out who the noisy early morning culprits are. It’s the volunteers, too old to sleep beyond 4am and with weak bladders they are up before the dawn aided by high beam head torches. Once they are awake they are programmed to immediately dismantle their own tent then help breakdown the main camp. Only trouble is every one else is still trying to sleep. I lay there listening to zippers go up and down. The sweeping arc of a head torch pierces through the walls of my tent. Then I hear a long slow piss over a nearby fence which sounds like it’s landing in my tent. I clench my eyes tight but know no further sleep will occur. Grrr.
The mornings are crispy cold but the days clear and warm. Perfect riding weather. There is a twist in the tail. No one had spoken of Covid although we had all been required to show our full vaccination certification before starting the ride. A few had picked up the virus in Wilpena Pound where we had been in contact with many outsiders. Before this we had generally been well away from other travellers.
I get a message as I finish setting up my tent in Hawker. Louis has Covid and I am travelling back to Victoria with her and Paul. For an hour I felt like the wheels had fallen off. I was sent back to Port Augusta to pick up my car and drive back to camp. A solution comes when I realise that Kevin from Carnegie may be able to give me a lift and I can send the others ahead alone in my car. The laughter had dried up at dinner, masks were abundant and most ate outside even though it was bitterly cold. We all want to get to the finish line. The last two years have been full of restrictions for the many Victorians here. I don’t want it to restrict my life anymore.
I start the final day in a small group. As the trip has rolled along most have found their groove and tempo with at least one or two others. I’m solid on the flat bitumen but flounder in the gravel, Steve comes into his own on the gravel totally fearless, Kevin seems to drift along unbothered by whatever he’s riding over and before we lost him Paul climbed like a mountain goat with not an ounce of excess weight to carry. Peter from near Byron Bay rides across the countryside with the confidence of a back country skier whooping and hollering like he’s aboard a wild brumby.
Final day and we swoop off the top of Horrocks Pass, a glimpse of the Spencer Gulf just out of reach. Teased by the silkiest, smoothest piece of bitumen we’d ridden, flying at 60 km/hr when a red BikeSA arrow points us towards Spear Creek road. Russell had described this last 30 kms back into Port Augusta as sketchy in his briefing. Alert…alert. Truth is the track was just rocks tipped from a truck and a thin layer of bitumen spread thinly over the whole mess. I watched, my head nodding madly like doll on a dashboard as the others bounced away. I wouldn’t catch them again until the outskirts of Port Augusta.
From the best road to the absolute worst. And that’s how cycling often is. The rough with the smooth, the bitter cold with the sweltering heat. But I wouldn’t change it for the world. The chance to meet others and get up close with nature. The Flinders Ranges had shown us it’s very best. Get out there.