The plan is to cycle each day for a week, around 550 kms. Each night you pitch a tent on a sports field and sleep on the ground. I’m still unsure of the attraction, maybe my therapist could help ? Oh thats right, a truck carries our gear to the next nights destination. Sleeping in tents is one thing, sleeping in tents with tissue thick walls gives clarity to the constant rustle of airbeds, the snoring, the farting and the occasional cough ( for sure it’s Covid) This all means that you progressively wilt from the lack of sleep completely forgetting the 100kms/day of cycling. In my dreams my bed at home features regularly. The wind flaps my tent just making me want to hunker down deeper in my sleeping bag. My nose protrudes like a periscope. The only part of me exposed to the bitter cold wind mysteriously seeping into my tent. I sniff at the cold air but only to stay alive.
There is also the fascinating array of quirky (such a kind word) idiosyncracies within the group of tour volunteers. They probably say the same about us over a hot cup of cocoa late each night. Give some of these volunteers a sniff of power and they are waving arms and taking their task just a little too seriously. The ponytailed guy who waves your table to rise as one to join the queue for a cup of good for you soup. For a moment he has power he has never wielded in the real world. The formally jacketed volunteer passing me butter portions and a tub of strawberry jam with his hands firmly gripping his tongs and making me feel like a leper. Maureen, the toast lady never gives me hot toast instead choosing to give me undercooked bread from a stack of earlier failures. The list is long or am I just looking for faults like a grumpy old man. Luckily I have but a few myself….
The food is adequate without necessarily being interesting but they are trying to feed 200 participants all with their special dietary requirements. I sit in the “eat anything” camp so I feel that I am missing out on personal attention and a chance to tell a story about almost dying on a peanut. More than half of the participants have some type of dietary requirement and are getting heaps more attention. Once you didn’t want to be on the special bus… now everyone’s aboard. I take my meal and tussle with the biodegradable, totally unusable, safe in an aircraft, wooden knife and fork. It won’t even cut a half cooked sausage. Bah humbug.
Our first day is a return ride to Nelson. Memories of hiring a gasping two stroke putt putt boat to head up the Glenelg river came flooding back. Robyn and I had spluttered in our questionable vessel past half submerged shanty buildings thrown together by locals over summer holidays. Today those same hut owners are fighting the authorities to stay nestled against the riverbank, the council wants them gone.
We camp on the South Gambier football ground. I have chosen a spot in the forward pocket for my small orange hiking tent. Around me are fifty tents of various styles and fifty deluxe tents for those wanting others to erect, dismantle and move them on. I’m awake at 3am to torrential rain snug in my bed but the tent walls are swaying about like I’m in a wild storm at sea. I wake again at dawn only to crawl from my sleeping bag into a deep puddle… in my tent. Libby cheekily asks later if the water on the floor was clear.. “I’m not a bed wetter” I too quickly retort, it’s an unconvincing reply.
A lull in the wind has me convinced that I can dry everything out whilst I go and eat breakfast. However I return to find my inflatable mattress has flown the coup. I run my eyes to the horizon and there it is, clinging precariously to the cyclone fencing of the far away tennis court. I retrieve it feeling embarrassed but also feeling lucky that it has not been punctured during its escape. The thought of sleeping directly on the ground is very unattractive. I jump on the bike, something I always feel comfortable doing and chew on a strong S/W wind for 104 kms.
Into Naracoorte for a well earned rest day. The roads today have been arrow straight with few undulations. I’ve passed many riders standing on their peddles giving their sore behinds a rest from the ever present bike seat. Few of the riders will have done back to back days of one hundred kms and although fitness is important a hardened or seasoned (pepper, no salt please ) butt is essential on multi day rides. They will not even look at their bike on our rest day preferring to pretend someone has stolen it before begrudgingly throwing a leg over it for the final few days back to Mount Gambier.
I spend part of my rest day at the Naracoorte Caves. It is a world heritage site and a slick operation. I had been expecting a rickety set of rusting steps down into the bowels of a clammy cave illuminated by a single candle. Instead we walk down a smooth concrete ramp to a solid door which opens into a well lit tunnel leading us into another world. Millions of years of water coursing its way down through the soft lime has opened up these underground cathedrals. Stalactites and stalagmites sit like long ago spent candles. They glisten of fresh water droplets reflected by the cave lights and illuminating the cave’s depth.
Our cave guide keeps us all interested and focused in a devious way. His trick is to turn out the lights, it’s pitch black, nothing at all. His leadership takes on a new respect, he has us in the palm of his hand. Please, please turn the lights back on. We finally come to the main attraction, the fossil cave. A hole had formed at ground level acting as a trap dropping unsuspecting animals many metres down over thousands of years.
In the 1970s a group of cave explorers stumbled upon it from within the known cave system. Petrified bones littered the floor and an archaeological dig has since uncovered long extinct animals skeletons in the layers of sediment buildup. It’s a time capsule of the wildlife from the local area for millions of years. We stumble out blinking blindly into the afternoon heat and harsh light. A local bus awaits to take us back to town, sadly no one has stolen our bikes and we will continue again tomorrow.
The weather has turned and the wind has picked up. My dreams of a tail wind back to our starting point in South Gambier have been foiled. Instead the wind swirls trying to push me back or on occasions force me to peddle downhill. It’s frustrating but gives us all a common conversation piece. Some just open their mouths and eat into it. Others crouch low with their nose almost touching the handlebars. Others sit behind a barely panting electric bike not feeling guilty of the advantage. The electric bike rider feels a false smugness and the train behind them grows as the day gets longer. The only thing the e-bike rider truly fears is a flat battery before camp.
Once it was easy to pick the bulky electric motor assisted bike. Not today, the new bikes are streamlined with the gears and battery hidden deep in the traditional hollow frame. It’s only the slower rhythmic cadence of their legs that gives them away. I’m not bitter, one day it will be my turn to ride one of these new bikes with the built in assistance of god’s hand firmly on my back.
We are nearly home but the wind just won’t leave us. A hot afternoon and we slip into a beautiful local winery, Patrick’s of Coonawarra. One of the group has a contact with the winery and we are met with two giant platters of meats, cheeses, nuts and olives. The next two hours are a journey through their whole range of wines produced in the vats somewhere behind us. I can barely feel any pain in my legs from our day’s cycling. The wine has dulled my whole body. By the time we leave the heat has gone from the day and the wind is at our back. Penola campground will only be remembered for the rock hard surface that refused my tent pegs.
Our final day, the threatening weather has spooked the majority of the riders into leaving before the start time. I am trying to eat my breakfast at 7.30am whilst all around me tables are being packed by over enthusiastic volunteers and only a handful of riders are yet to leave. Each time I stop at a rest break I feel like I’ve missed the boat. I arrive as most are scurrying off again. Yes it’s windy, sometimes it’s with us, often against or is it that you feel it more in your face.
The reason most bolted early was the forecast of rain. It really doesn’t bother me anymore. Years of touring have taught me to simple embrace it, feel it on my face and just try to keep your crutch dry. Don’t laugh, a wet crutch will rub you raw in no time and there’s many days of skin repair after that. My last hour back into Mount Gambier is torrential rain and I let my mind slip away. I find others cowering in shopfronts or behind buildings but best you get to the finish, put your tent up and get under that hot shower to thaw you out.
That’s what I do, then slip away to the Little Rippa brewery down the road to sample their dark porter beers and warm my insides. The first pint was like swallowing a rainbow with a slight chocolate, coffee aftertaste. Unsure, I have a few more before wobbling back to dinner and our final meal together. A mixed grille, chicken, sausages and salad. I calculate they have cooked more than 500 sausages, no mean feat but they probably do that on match day. I attacked it all with the ‘not fit for purpose’ wooden knife and fork. Truth is I’m too hungry to complain. Who said you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.
Sunday morning and the rain continues unabated. Everything I own is either wet or damp. I drag it all up to the car and fling it in the back, out of sight, out of mind. Breakfast huddled in the steamy clubrooms then I queue for a final coffee from Rory and say my goodbyes to old friends and a few new ones. Some stories have been told, some retold for the umpteenth time and a few sweet memories made. That’s what it’s about.