Day 112: Sydney, NSW to Barren Grounds Nature Reserve - Four Legs on the Slow Road - CycleBlaze

December 16, 2014

Day 112: Sydney, NSW to Barren Grounds Nature Reserve

We wake up before 6:00 and descend into a furious rush of working and emailing and packing up gear that lasts for more than four hours. As a hurricane of activity sweeps through our little room, the city outside comes to life. Workers and students and tourists flood into the streets by the tens of thousands, walking with high heels and backpacks and blank expressions on their faces to the sounds of diesel bus engines, angry pedestrians, and the tree branches and leaves that sway in the growing breeze. In the hostel, the TV entertains itself and the chemical stink of automated-release air fresheners fills our noses.

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It's time to make a run for it. We ride a quarter of a mile to Sydney's central train station, and for just nine bucks a head we buy tickets for a rail line that will take us two and a half hours to the south, where an ocean, a beach, and then an entire continent lie in wait. We stand around and tingle with excitement as our departure draws closer.

Once we're on board, the beautiful old buildings and modern high-rises of downtown Sydney soon give way to tired old buildings with bricks stained black by gutter water and covered with intermittent patches of painted-over graffiti. These then trade places with the low-rise apartments, strip malls, and long blocks of identical-looking homes that mark the start of the suburbs. It seems as if the view will look like this all the way to Minnimurra, but then all of a sudden civilization drops away and we travel through pristine national park land where unbroken forests of eucalyptus trees spread out over the valleys and wrap around every bend and fold of the hillsides. We hope it's a preview of what Australia has in store.

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A mile down the road from where we leave the train behind we pull off onto a patch of grass and come to a stop. As soon as we do, a handful of flies find us and set to work on the task of bouncing off of our faces and ears every three seconds without end. This leads us to wave them away with a swat of the hand, in a move that we've been told is known as the Aussie Salute. Two-and-a-half months from now this is going to be our greatest skill.

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Then we walk down a narrow gap in the bushes and find ourselves staring out at a thin strip of golden sand that leads to the tumultuous landfall of the Tasman Sea, which we now face looking toward the east instead of the west. Kristen inches her bike down to the edge of the dark line that marks where the incoming waves will end, and within moments salt water washes over her tires and wheels. And that's it; our adventure has been reborn. For years I've wanted to cycle across Australia, and now that challenge is not only here, but I have the chance to attempt it with the person I care about more than anyone else riding right behind or right in front of me. We are Team Hawthorne, and you could live out the rest of your days without finding another pair of people quite as fortunate nor quite as awkwardly tan-lined as the two of us. Next stop: Perth!

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As soon as the sea recedes from view we start to ride up and over rolling green hills, past paddocks filled with black and white cows, and under overcast skies. From our spot at the top of a long rise it makes it seem like the train took us all the way back to the North Island of New Zealand. But the day is warm and humid, and we know that's how it will stay through the evening and into the night, and the psychological boost that fact gives us is immeasurable.

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It doesn't take long for us to reach Jamberoo. It's the kind of place where there's only one main street through town, and it's lined with one grocery store, one restaurant, one hotel and pub, one newsstand, one farm supply store, and so on. Locals smile and say hello when they walk past, and even though the information they give us about the roads ahead seems inaccurate and not so helpful (the short version: don't go the way you're going, and don't go to Perth), the fact that they're compelled to help in the first place makes us feel welcomed and looked after.

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We head over to the town park to put together an early dinner. There we watch more than a hundred kids playing five-on-five touch rugby, all floppy haired and skinny limbed and wearing jerseys with the name of the town's grocery store printed in block letters across the front. Every mom, dad, brother, sister, and grandparent who watches — and there are at least 300 of them — waves their hand in front of their face and around their head more or less constantly to keep the flies at bay. Around the edges of the pitch, people walk their dogs, people walk themselves, and hotdogs and sausages sizzle on a big gas grill. There's the pop of tennis balls flying off racket faces, the repetitive encouragement of upbeat tennis coaches, and the piercing shriek of giant white cockatoos that pass overhead. It's warm and peaceful, the definition of pleasant. It makes me think that if you wanted to live in a small, quiet, friendly, attractive little town, you probably couldn't find an example more perfect or better-named than Jamberoo.

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A local tells us that it's okay to camp in the park, that no one will bother us. But we notice a symbol indicating that no tents are allowed, and we also see a sign advertising a Christmas concert for later in the evening that we think will bring in a bunch of people, so we decide not to press our luck. It's a decision that means we'll tackle the longest, steepest climb of our Australian adventure on our first day of riding.

We pedal toward the end of the valley where the Great Escarpment closes in around it on three sides. Our rational minds know that we're about to go over this immense mass of land somewhere, yet the height of the hills that tower above us show no sign of weakness, no possible point of passage. But soon enough we start to find out. The road starts up at an incredible angle, where we crank with every ounce of effort and energy we can find and still the fastest we're able to travel is two-and-a-half miles per hour. The heat and the humidity and total lack of wind mean that sweat forms on every body part and then turns into steady streams that fall from the point of my chin and deflect off the top tube, pool around the hairs of my arms and legs, and turn the front of my shirt into a solid mass of dark warm wetness.

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Going up.
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The first half of the climb runs as steep as anything I've yet experienced, which sends us into the stop-every-quarter-mile game so that we can catch our breath, wipe our brows, and try to stay hydrated. But the slow pace also gives us the chance to appreciate how we're able to ride all alone among the exotic-sounding birds, the chirps of crickets, wombats that scuttle around in the bush that runs right up to the road's edge, and the strong smell of eucalyptus.

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Painfully steep sections with double-digit grades greet us farther on, but in general the second half of the climb isn't as aggressive as the first, and we yell out for joy because of it. Among the tight bends and curves we head past beautiful country homes, small farms, and an abbey where the monks support themselves by selling crafts to passing tourists. At certain points the trees arch over the road so close to one another that the pavement changes from a medium gray to a depthless black as it passes beneath them. All told, we only stop once for more than five minutes, because we're not only strong from 3,000 miles of riding, but also rested from the two weeks off the bike that restored our health and recharged our minds. We aren't the fastest bike riders around, nor do we have the greatest endurance, but we're deeply proud of what we're able to accomplish.

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By the time we reach the turnoff to a nature preserve, the spots of sweat on our shirts have turned to contiguous masses that stretch from the top of the neckline to the end of the bottom hem. But we made it as far as we hoped we would, and with less agony than we were sure was waiting for us. We're rewarded with a still and untouched corner of the country, where birds swoop between the trees in search of insects and where clear skies to the west glow in pale shades of orange and pink and purple. It's hard to imagine that just ten hours ago we were at the train station in the heart of Sydney, and now we're all alone in the tent, surrounded by native woods, under a canopy of emerging stars. Yet somehow that's exactly what happened.

Today's ride: 18 miles (29 km)
Total: 3,257 miles (5,242 km)

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