Day 114: Bundanoon, NSW to Bungonia State Conservation Area - Four Legs on the Slow Road - CycleBlaze

December 18, 2014

Day 114: Bundanoon, NSW to Bungonia State Conservation Area

After forcing ourselves out of the most comfortable bed we've slept in for months, we head out to the kitchen where we eat oatmeal with milk and brown sugar, sip steaming-hot tea, and look over maps of Southeastern Australia with Wendy. Some national news radio broadcast plays in the background, and in lulls in our conversation I hear snippets about the aftermath of the siege in Sydney that ended in the death of the hostage-taker and two of the thirty-something people taken hostage. There's talk of the lingering police presence, soundbites from officials urging citizens to continue on with their daily lives as normal, and debates about the merits of stricter gun control laws. As sad as it is to say, if it weren't for the delightful Australian accents I'd think we were listening to the radio following yet another mass shooting back home in the States. As an American, this kind of pre-meditated violence and the crush of national attention that comes along with it are unfortunately business as usual.

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With a dozen cockatoos circling high above and screeching as if the angel of death is approaching, we say goodbye and give our heartfelt thanks to Wendy for all of her unsolicited generosity and the boost of strength and optimism it has given us. Then we cycle by the busy little cafes and bakery and newsstand that line the main street of Bundanoon and continue our push to the west, past a couple of confused alpacas and dead rabbits who lay in various stages of flatness near the edge of the road.

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We ride in the shade of gum trees that arch over the gentle undulations of the road, next to farms and country homes, small patches of wildflowers in yellow and red and white, and never out of sight of the rail line. It guides us to Penrose, which is no more than a train station, a hardware store, a cafe, a tiny grocery store, and a dozen houses stretching away parallel to the tracks in both directions. In a rack next to the community bulletin board there's a spot for tri-folded brochures that list the schedule and detailed descriptions of the programming broadcast on the area's main FM radio station. Out here they're all about Music Time with Shan, Window on Wales, Highway to Heaven, and Platters That Matter.

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At the long table that sits at the far end of the veranda that fronts the cafe, a tanned and balding sixty-something grump of a man sits at a bench and smokes a cigarette. In between drags he explains how voicemail on mobile phones works to the sweet old grandmother in the lavendar cardigan who sits across from him. As he presses the buttons and the recorded message plays, she's surprised and delighted in a way that suggests she never knew such a thing existed until just this moment. In the manner of people who have known each other for decades, they sit and talk for the next half an hour, complaining about the work ethic of young people today, talking about what the logging operations in this area were like twenty or thirty years ago, and waving to every person they know who walks or drives past, which means just about everyone who walks or drives past.

A small brown chook named Henny walks up and stands next to me as I eat my banana and cookies, with a look on her face that says, "Hey, I'm here, gimme."

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"She's a beggar, that one," says the grandmother. "A hungry little one, too. Someone left the back door open at the hardware store over there one time, and she walked right in and pecked open the feed bags, and started eating. Wouldn't stop until they chased her out! Of course she's quite smart, too. There was one day a few years ago she was out front here, and there was a man using that pay phone right there. She watched him and waited, and then as he was gone she walked over, jumped up onto the little counter in there and started pecking at the phone."

Impressive, but she's not getting any of my Tim Tams.

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We spend so much time in front of the cafe that not long after we start riding again morning has become afternoon. But the back road we travel on stays empty, the passing drivers continue to wave, and we stay tunneled in gum trees almost always. In all of the little towns we pass through the locals ask, "How ya goin'?" They have a long line of questions about our trip, and the conversations end with some sort of positive well-wishes and none of the Why'd ya ever wanta ride to Perth? garbage that we've already become tired of hearing.

It's a place of gentle rolling hills, peaceful roads, and abandoned homes and barns first built more than a century ago. It's a place where the fields haven't been stripped bare of all their trees, but instead are allowed to extend to the distant foothills with a healthy looking mix of grass and small stands of eucalyptus. It's a place that forces us to try and remember the last time we had such an enjoyable and fulfilling stretch of cycling. We feel healthy, strong, and happy to be alive and traveling across Australia by bicycle.

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Warning: smiling wombats ahead.
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After a short run on the motorway, where the bird calls and the sound of the wind passing through the trees are snubbed out by the belch of diesel engines and the screech of rubber on concrete, we pick up a narrow, unlined, rough-sealed road heading south. The cries of what sound like cicadas echo down from the branches above so consistently and with such volume that it's like the trees have been outfitted with speakers, and that a short recording has been connected to the speakers and set to repeat on an endless loop. The sound created by this cast of millions is so loud and so ever-present that it feels heavy as it winds its way into our ears. And yet we're probably the only ones around to hear it. We see no one standing or working outside the few homes that sit back away from the road, and every car that passes does so at high speed, with the windows shut tight and the air conditioner cranked to its coldest setting.

Take that, flies!
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Beyond Bungonia we head through another long section of gum trees, and that's where Kristen spots the first kangaroo of our trip. She doesn't hear it at first, but instead sees it spring into motion out of the corner of her eye as it heads away from the road, dashing in between the trunks of the trees, fast and agile, big and powerful. We wonder out loud if that's the last kangaroo we'll see during our time in this country as we continue on into a valley where wide-open fields of green and yellow are watched over by patches of puffy clouds and oceans of pure blue sky so perfect it looks like they've been pulled from a postcard.

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There's no need for us to have worried about the kangaroos. We see several more bouncing around among the trees just on the one-mile ride between the entrance to the conservation area where we'll be camping and the campground itself. There isn't anywhere in the world we could possibly right now; this is undeniably Australia.

While I hang out in the kitchen area and spend hours trying to rehydrate and fill myself up with enough food to make the pounding in my head go away, Kristen puts together plans of her own. In her words:

Jeff takes advantage of a table and chair to work on the journal while I brush my teeth and charge electronics. Then I think, "Hang on, we're in a national park. We're in mostly native habitat in Australia. I can't hang out in the kitchen all night." So I put up the tent under eucalyptus trees so I can stash my stuff safely out of reach of the world's most deadly animals and the other two people who are at this campground. I hop on my bike, lightweight now with only one pannier and the camera, and head back down the road to the turnoff for the lookout sites.
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My extra couple of miles at the end of the day pay off. Had I stayed in the kitchen I wouldn't have had the chance to stand alone on the lookdown platform, watching the sunset reflect on the hills and canyon below. And had I not been standing there quietly and for so long I wouldn't have had the chance to hear the kangaroos rustling around in the brush beside me for dinner. They heard me too at the snap of the camera shutter. We watched each other for a few minutes and then went on our ways. I spotted an echidna as well on my way back to camp. I didn't know what kind of animal he was at the time, but I got to see him poke along the leaf covered ground with his little protruding nose. Hello Australia.
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Darkness falls not long after we join back up and return to the tent. In the sky above, the stars that form Orion and Orion's Belt shine with more intensity than we've ever before seen. Because we're in the Southern Hemisphere, the placement of the stars on the black backdrop is reversed, which makes them seem upside down to our eyes. Moments later, with a lone cricket calling out to an otherwise quiet forest, the subtle cool of the late spring night makes itself known, and from the comfort of the sleeping bag our last conversation of the day trails off into nothing.

Today's ride: 40 miles (64 km)
Total: 3,341 miles (5,377 km)

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