A new challenge: Riding the desert: Boulia to Alice Springs - A treadling Hyohakusha - CycleBlaze

July 27, 2017

A new challenge: Riding the desert: Boulia to Alice Springs

Let's see where were we? It's been a few weeks since I've written anything.

That's right, I was in Boulia at the caravan park and about to head out across the Donahue/Plenty Highway. It's the Donahue in Queensland and rebadged the Plenty once it hits the NT border, but it is still the same road.

Boulia to Tobermorey
80 km

I'm typing this out sitting in my tent which is pitched on a large hay bale at the Herbert Stock Yards 84 km west of Boulia. I think this has to be one of the most unique pitches I've set in over 50 years of outdoor adventuring. It has to be in the top five, that's for sure.

I got a miserably late start to the day's ride, not getting out of town until close to 11 am. One of my kids needed a bit of councilling about a pending move back to OZ, so it was worth waiting around to talk to her. By the time I'm back in phone contact she will hopefully be back in OZ. And to make matters worse, I somehow left my favourite (and only) safety vest behind, either at the roadhouse or more likely blowing along the road somewhere between there and when I realised I wasn't wearing it 20 km later - Doh!!

A guy was heading out the door of the roadhouse as I was going in. Looking right at me, he stopped right in the middle of the door and said, "My god, you are fit! You must work out a lot. How do you do it?" I pointed down to the loaded bike, which they hadn't seen, and replied, "Pushing that every day, loaded with about 50 kg of gear."

We all had a good laugh. They asked the usual questions and I gave the standard answers. He asked how much I weighed, "70 kg?" I replied, "Maybe closer to 65 by now" and then went in to order a full breakfast.

I promised the ladies at the tourist information centre that I'd check and record every water bore between Boulia and Tobermorey, seeing as no one in town knew if there were any or where they might be located. I started with 16 litres, the bare minimum I'd need to do the 260 km to Tobermorey. About 43 km into the ride I stopped, got out my empty water bottle and filter to check out a roadside bore. It was dead empty and looked like it had been that way for years. As I was walking back to the road,a couple in a camping 4wd pulled into the open paddock and drove over to me and asked if I needed any water. Ah shucks - how can you not enjoy a ride when random travellers are going out of their way to look out for your welfare. I filled my empty bottle and had a great chat with them about the beauty and serentiy of outback Australia: all of that wide open endless forever. I told them when I arrived here it took several years before I could comprehend and appreciate it. They were immigrants from S Africa and said it was the same for them and that now they couldn't get enough of it. Every winter they got in their 4wd camper and headed for the most remote spots in the bush they could find.

After they left I thought I'd get a photo of one of the many stock route signs. It was right there, just opposite the empty water tank and dead windmill. So I pushed the bike over, took the photo and while I was pushing the bike back to the road to start off again I somehow overbalanced and lost control of the bike. I tried to grab it more firmly as it was falling and only made matters worse, ripping the rearview mirror from the handlebar. Ever ready to give me a lesson, that gave my platform pedal pins the opportunity cut another hole into my shins. And my chain decided to pop off the front chairrings and get hopelessly wedged under the guard that was installed specifically to stop that from ever happening. And falling over, my overloaded rack bag came undone from it's moorings. And then I broke one of the two tiedown straps that hold it firmly to the back rack. Maximum carnage and I didn't even fall off the bloody bike. Imagine what I would be capable of if I fell off while moving.

It took me about half an hour to get everything sorted and pedalling again. My map showed a possible camp site at about the 80 km mark so I set my end goal accordingly. I was amazed at how easy that 80 km rolled out, considering how late I started and the mess I got myself into at the halfway point. And that's how I find myself at the Herbert Stock Yards, sitting in my tent atop a hay bale with a beautiful night sky and full moon to keep me company.

One of the most unusual tent pitches in a lifetime of many: Herbert Station stockyards. A blissful, quiet night and a bore with good drinking water - the only one close to the road between Boulia and Tobermorey Station.
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Dawn, Herbert Station stockyards.
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Nite all...

Day Two to Tobermorey
100 km

Got started at the usual 0830 and started pedalling. I had been warned that rain was coming and I knew that a fair deal of the road to Tobermorey Station was dirt, so my idea was to get as much of it done before the rains started, or maybe if I was lucky, to beat the rains. Once these outback roads get wet it's game over for cyclists. They turn to gumbo and until the local council's shut them the 4wds and the heavy trucks churn them up something awful. So I had about 170 km to do in two days.... Yeah, based on my form to date, I should be able to do it. And they always get the weather forecasts wrong, don't they....

The locals tell you "and there's only 80 km of dirt to Tobermorey, the rest is bitumen." I don't think any of them have ridden a bike there... I think it's the other way around: 80 km of tar seal and 160 of dirt road that gets progressively worse the closer you get to the NT border and Tobermorey. Add some rain to that, please.

I knocked off 100 km on day two and made camp not long before sunset and the start of the rain. It arrived a bit early. Not a big rain, just a slow steady non-stop drizzle that lasted all night. I thought, "no worries, it will stop in the morning and all will be right." Afterall, I had only 75 km left to Tobermorey and surely I had done at least 100 km of dirt over the past two days and it will be paved all the way there... surely?

Day Three: The Mud

I didn't break camp until mid day, thinking all the while that the rain would stop any minute now.... it didn't. By midday I had to decide: ride? or stay put and wait it out? The only question was, how long would this rain last? One day? Or one week?? So ride it was: 75 km of bitumen - no worries.

Well the bitumen lasted about 3 km and then the mud started. I got another 5 km, and that took the better part of an hour. The road was a rock and mud garden. I was barely moving, everything was a mud gumbo: me, the bags, the bike- we were all coated in it. My front tyre has an aggressive knobby tread (Knobby Nic) and was picking up the mud and depositing it on my wheel, fork, bags, drivetrain and me. The drivetrain was starting to sieze up and I was thinking I was going to have to wet camp in the mud on the side of the road - and lord knows for how long.

Not good, no not good at all. But it could still be okay, if the rain stops and the sun comes out to dry out the road. "Yeah, right mate " as Lester the Middleton Pub publican would say.

So in the middle of this calamity, a big 4wd Land Cruiser, fully packed with no room inside and roof rack teetering under a full load, stops along side of me and George and Sonia say, "You all right mate. Want a lift?" Some how and some way we managed to get all of my muddy bags and bike strapped onto their roof rack. Plenty of cars with lots more room went past before they stopped to check me out. Why is it that those who are the least able are the most generous and offer total strangers the most help? And here I am at Tobermorey Station, spending way more than I should on accommodation because my tent is a sodden muddy mess, my bags are coated in a thick layer of mud, my bike has fused with the road mud and nothing works and it's still raining and looks like it will continue like this for at least a couple more days.

Sonia and George fed me a fantastic dinner tonight and I now have two new friends. I'm happy, conntent and at peace with the world. I'll try to clean up my gear and my tent tomorrow morning, but there is only so much you can do when it's raining 24/7. I think I'll be here for a while - I have to wait until the sun decides to return and dries out the track. That will take several days, maybe longer. Let it rain, I'll sleep well tonight...

George (Jacko) and Sonia: my mud calamity rescuers. Two new friends, I look forward to seeing them again.
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The Rain
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It rained, it rained all last night and for most of today. The road in both directions has been physically closed by the Boulia Shire. If the local Shire catches you out driving on their closed road there is a big on the spot fine. They are the ones who have to put the grader over it and fix it, so they aren't happy to find people in big 4wds plowing up the road. There is a woman on a bike coming the other way and I keep wondering how she's faring out there in the mud and rain. I hope she has enough food and water... food anyway - water shouldn't be a problem right now.

It was a good day though. There are about a dozen seperate groups here and we all spent most of the day getting to know each other. In the evening we stood around the fire, chatted and I think most of them drank their alcohol supplies dry. Night two in my cozy bed. I think I'll spoil myself and spend night three in the room, too. Then I'll go back to the camping in the tent.

Party time: what you do when the road is closed... Tobermorey Station for three days.
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This group of young French backpackers thought they'd take their small overloaded 4wd across the Plenty Highway - not gonna happen...
They were great company and kept us all entertained for three days. In the end they had to turn around and take the bitumen road to Alice Springs.
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Drying out
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The sun was out first thing this morning and a good wind with it, so the ground has started to dry. By mid day all of the puddles in the campsite had started to shrivel up. By tomorrow at least the camp site will be dry. We are all told the road is still closed, but we get the odd 4wd coming through from the Alice Springs end, their drivers seemingly not caring that the road is closed. One 4wd towing a campervan totally covered in mud, including the driver (epically bogged in a bulldust turned bullmud patch) had driven right through from Alice Springs, right through the road closure. He had to be convinced that he was better off heading north to Mt Isa on the only road that is still open (to high clearance 4wd only) as they'd be waiting for him in Boulia if he carried on to the east.

We've all been told that the Plenty Highway (west) will remain closed for at least a couple more days. Everyone here is planning to head north to Mt Isa and then west on the paved highway, about a 500 km detour to Alice Springs. I'm staying put and waiting it out.

The female cyclist has been sighted. Apparently she is still pedalling and only 60 km west of here. How she's managing to ride through that mud is a mystery to me - one tough girl, I think... I'll find out when she gets here tonight.

A day of surprises
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They're all gone: by about 0800 I was the only one left. I moved from the cabin I had been in for the past three nights and back to the tent. Being on the bike got me about a 20% discount, but there's a big difference between $80 for a cabin and $15 per night for the tent. While I was setting up my tent and trying to figure out how to distribute my supplies and water for the next stretch, up cycles the female cyclist, a Swede named Ann Johansson.

I don't get it. I covered only 5 km in the mud and my bike siezed up. This good looking girl (when you are 65, you can call 30 year old women "girls") rolls up: pert, bubbly, happyhappyhappy beaming ear to ear smile, clean as a whistle; not a speck of mud on her after having spent 3 days slogging it out on the closed road that 4wds were struggling to get through. But Ann is no ordinary touring cyclist, she's hard core and what Kendon (more about him later) called "match fit." She was offered rides several times, but preferred pedalling along in the mud. She even took a video pushing her bike through waist high swolled creeks. She said it took three goes before she got footage she liked. She didn't even stay at the campsite. I fed her lunch from the leftovers the caravaners had left me and she was off, down the still closed road to Boulia. She left quite an impression....

Ann Johansson: one very fit and infectiously fun & optimistic hard core cycle tourist. Seriously Unstoppable
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Later, just before sunset, Kendon cycled up. I had heard a few days before the rain started that he was cycling up behind me, heading in the same direction. He's an Aussie and is also a very experienced long distance cyclist, having done a 5 year lap of the planet by bike, including cycling/sneaking through Tibet in the winter. He met Ann on the road this afternoon and she left an impression on him, as well. We spent a fair while talking into the night and again the next morning. I left before him as he wanted to do a load of washing before heading out. That's the last I saw of him; he somehow managed to pass me and last heard had a big lead on me.

Meet Kendon - cyclist extraordinaire #2 for the day. What an unusual day and I didn't cycle one inch, it all came to me.
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So I got to meet not one, but two fascinating and experienced cyclists in one day and I didn't cycle one inch.

To Jervois
60 km

I left Tobermorey about 1000 and knocked off about 60 km before calling it quits about an hour before sunset. About half a dozen 4wds passed me heading east - the cop at Hartz Range is letting everyone through even though the road is closed. They do things differently in the NT. And at Tobermorey they are diverting them north. And around 1630 a convoy of cars passed me heading west. Maybe the Boulia shire finally opened the road?

The road is pretty chopped up from all the 4wd traffic over the past couple of days, with grooves plowed deep into the surface. It is drying rapidly and I only had a few short sections where I had to get my bike muddy. It's a rough road though and you spend a fair bit of time bouncing over rocks or juddering over corrugations. Between the soft surface and the rock gardens I was making only about 10 kmph for most of the day. It's hard work, that's for sure. By the end of my 5 or 6 hours of pedalling under those conditions, I've got no energy left, well just enough to set up camp, cook a meal and crawl into the sleeping bag.

To Jervois
50 km

Today seemed even harder than yesterday. The entire ride was either bouncing through the rock garden (the road goes over exposed caprock that I think can't be graded, hence my calling it a rock garden) or through the drying but cut up mud track. When that mud dries out it will be transformed to bulldust, so I should be counting my blessings.

Bulldust reconfigured to corrugated ruts... Plenty Highway
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Ungradable Gondwanna caprock road surface - Plenty Highway
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Still holding water after the storm - Plenty Highway
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By the time I had done 50 km I was starting to fade, so when I came upon a bore/windmill/cattleyard about 200 metres from the road that was good enough for me. I filtered some water from the cattle trough and then pushed the bike to a spot where I couldn't be easily seen. I think I was sound asleep before full dark. There were dog tracks at the cattleyard, but if they were dingos, they were quiet and let me be. I wouldn't have noticed anyway...

I'm just now appreciating how fit that damn Swede is...

Camping by a Billabong - early morning.
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To Jervois
75 km

It was dingo tracks I saw at the cattle trough yesterday. There was one cautiously taking a drink at the trough as I pushed my bike out to the road - my first live dingo for the trip. The last couple of days getting an early start has been difficult. The ground is holding a lot of moisture after the storm and in combination with the the cold clear nights we've had heavy dews. Not only is the tent wet, but so is the sleeping bag and any clothing/gear left exposed inside the tent during the night. I've been drying it all out during a prolonged mid day lunch break.

A pair of grey nomads coming the other way gave me an ice cold diet coke. I never drink fizzy drinks, but my oh my, that sure went down well.

I'm figuring 4 to 6 days from Tobermorey to Jervois Station. I have plenty of water and food. So why am I pushing it? The grey nomads tell me that Kendon is now a day or two ahead of me and I long ago gave up trying to keep up with younger and fitter cyclists... so what's the deal? There was a great spot to camp at one of the river crossings at about the 40 km mark and little did I realise that was going to be the only decent spot for a while. Another "should have" moment to remember. By the time I was ready to call it finished for the day I was on this long straight stretch that had nowhere to camp. I was averaging only about 5 kmph for the last 10 km, staggering from one rocky corrugation to the next - a sure sign I had pushed myself a bit further than I should. In the end I pushed the bike down one of the runoff channels that the graders cut into the road every kilometre or so. Set up camp, dinner, sleep....

Next time, I will listen to my smarter self and take the early camp option.... "Yeah, right mate," says Lester...

Look like I've had a fun day? At the end of a day of bouncing down the Plenty Highway.
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30 km

That long day yesterday left only a short run into Jervois this morning. So that was about three and a bit days in total to get here to Jervois. I was thinking it would take about five. And it's left me most of the day to thoroughly dry out my gear and wash my salt encrusted riding clothes. It would be madness to do this run in the middle of summer. GJ Coops might be able to do it, but not me - no way...

Yes, it gets hot out here in the summer. How hot, you ask? Zoom into the text and read, in three languages...
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Tonight's dinner will be Spam, couscous and dried peas, followed by a home grown orange (courtesy of a couple that stopped here for lunch just now). It's now only 135 km to Atitjira which has a shop where I can resupply and then only another 30 to the bitumen. If the food supplies in Atitjira are good, then I'll probably cut down the Pinnacles track (more dirt) to the East McDonald range and some more camping and then into Alice Springs on the back road.

It's a plan...

Next stop: Gemtree

67 km

This road continues to take its toll on me. The countryside varies from quite good by outback Australia standards, to quite boring with not much to commend it. The road surface is unrelenting. It is either washboard corrugations or riding on ancient Gondwanna bedrock. You can't blame the road builders or maintenance crews for the road surface over the bedrock. How could you possibly run a grader over bedrock? It would snap the blade off in the first 50 metres. The gravel and red dirt sections are another story though. It's obvious that road maintenance isn't a big priority for the NT government. All of the red dirt sections have been chewed up by the 4wds during the rain and the gravel sections are all washboard corrugations. The result is about 90% of the time I'm hanging on to the handlebars and trying to absorb the pounding as best I can. Inexplicrably, about 10% of the road surface is comparitively good. And then, very occassionally you cover a couple of km that has been resurfaced and rides smoothly. But the overwheming majority of the ride is hard work. I'm good for about three or four hours of pounding, but after that start to fade quickly, both physically and mentally. By hour five, I'm toast...

The road crews have been out cutting detours into the scrub to bypass the worst of the flooded sections.
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I rode a fairly long day (well toasted) and found a great spot to camp at the foot of a breakaway (small flat top range of low hills) that ran up close to the road. It was by far the most dramatic campsite view of the trip to date. The nights here in the desert are fantastic - they are what makes the whole experience worthwhile. I had camp set up and ready as the sun was setting, made a great campfire and just sat there until late watching the stars spin their course through the night sky. I woke once during the night to the sound of dingos singing in the rising cresent moon: a midnight toilet break to the sound of dingos singing in the moonlight - magic!

The best time of day. The sun has set, the flies have clocked off for the day and the stars are coming out - it's magic!!
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Past Atitjera

84 km

Today was just another hard day's work. The road surface continued to deliver its punishment throughout the day. But I'm definitely appreciating the lack of bulldust due to the rains. As the lady at Jervois said, all of that red dirt I'm bouncing over was all deep bulldust (with a washboard underlay) before the rains - I count my blessings, no matter how meager. A few km before Atitjera the road surface started to improve dramatically and from there to about 10 km past town the road crew is busy rebuilding the road. The temporary road is almost billiard table smooth....

My information said there would be a shop and camping at Atitjera. There is a shop with supplies adequate for an outback Aboriginal settlement (and a hungry cyclist), but no camping. I was mobbed by a group of young boys curious (and incredulous when told) about my ride. I resupplied for more bush camping in the East MacDonald Range (still haven't made up my mind on that one) and rode another 10 km to find a quiet camp site out of town.


66 km

From Atitjera, the dirt surface was well above average and I rolled along at about 15 kmph - oh that was sublime. About 25 to 30 km past Atitjera, the bitumen began.

Yeah, I was happy to finally get to the bitumen.
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I stopped, dropped the bike in the middle of the road and kissed the tarmac. In hindsight, I guess that 600 km beating took quite a lot out of me...

A tailwind swung in behind me and I motored all the way into Gemtree caravan park at 20+ kmph. Wednesday night is campfire oven meal night and I wanted to be there for that.

I got there about 2 pm and by the time it was my turn to book in, the lady told me that the campfire dinner was fully booked. I begged, told them I was on a bicycle and had been dreaming about that meal for days. I gave them my best sad dog look.... It worked!!!

Gemtree resting

0 km

So now I am well fed and recuperating at Gemtree (they even have a cafe with good coffee) stilll trying to make up my mind if I want to detour down the Pinnacles/Binn track to the East Macdonalds. A nice couple staying here are heading down it for a day trip in their 4wd - I'll await their report tonight before deciding....

Clothes are washed, journal is updated, leaving the rest of the day to rest and rehydrate.

To Alice
160 km

From Gemtree it was a pretty straight forward run into Alice Springs, much less interesting than coming in the back way down the Binn Track and Garden Tracks. But the Grey Nomads that went out scouting that road yesterday (sans caravans) turned around after 50 km because the track was so cut up. I had enough of the corrugations for now, so opted for the slightly longer, but infinitely smoother bitumen ride into Alice on the paved Plenty & Stuart Highways.

About 750 km due East to Boulia, Queensland; much of it bouncing over corrugations and rock... Wouldn't do it again in a hurry, but it's still a great ride and well worth the effort.
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The 70 km on the Plenty to where it intersects with the Stuart went quick and there wasn't too much traffic. The next 20 km on the Stuart and the following day's ride into Alice Spring was a mixed bag. Some bits of the road had a shoulder, most of it didn't, except the last 30 downhill km (woohoo!!!) into town. The speed limit in the NT just recently had an open road top speed cap implemented and the locals are still begrudgingly adjusting to it. A two lane highway with no shoulder and a 130 km limit (usually exceeded) makes for an interesting ride. I had one encounter with a wide load that could have / would have definitely ended badly had I been pedalling and not stopped just off the road taking a drink from my water bottle at the time. There's often not much that separates a good day from a bad one out here: today it was about two metres and 30 seconds...

But thanks to the travel gods, we made it in one piece to Alice Springs and out the other side to my prearranged accommodation. I'm resting up here for a few days, then heading out to the East Macs for a looksee.

Alice Springs: it's a wrap. Now what will I do???
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Then it will be time for Stage II of the adventure...

Stay tuned my little reader.

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