Day 135: Drajurk State Forest to Penola, SA - Four Legs on the Slow Road - CycleBlaze

January 8, 2015

Day 135: Drajurk State Forest to Penola, SA

It's the smoke that does it. We never see or hear an indication of fire, whether it's an aircraft or a helicopter scouting, a fire truck responding, or a pale glow in the distance lighting up the sky. But the smell of smoke stays strong, and fire is all we can think of as we lay in a tent surrounded for miles on all sides by forest, in a part of the world where everyone tells us it almost never rains in the summer, as lightning flashes far in the distance until well after midnight. With this on our minds, we set an alarm to wake us up every half hour until we're sure that no danger quietly surges our way.

Our rewards are peace of mind and a terrible night's sleep. And when we wake up tired and unexcited about the thought of pedaling a bicycle all day, we're greeted to the sound of rain deflecting off the fly in fat drops and the realization that everything both inside and outside the tent is covered in a layer made half of dirt and half of sand. By some miracle of physics there's even sand in our butt cracks, despite the fact that our shorts never lost contact with our bodies during the night.

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The morning is cooler, but the air is thick and wet with the humidity brought in by the dark overcast left over from last night. We ride in the puddles that have formed in the low spots of the road to try and get the sand and dirt off the surface of our rims and brakes, but every stop still turns into a squealing symphony of grit on aluminum. Several times we pass homesteads that have been abandoned for decades, where all that's left are the shells of old houses and barns and the occasional tractor. The tractors still move around the bales of hay that sustain the handful of cattle grazing in the wide open lands beyond the fence line, but they're driven by farmers who now live miles down the road.

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For the first house we've seen in five miles.
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I spend a lot of time thinking about how Casterton marked the end of the unique and wonderful kind of riding we've enjoyed since about our third day cycling in this country. No matter where we've gone, we've almost always been able to find quiet back roads to take us there, and small towns have never been more than twenty or thirty miles apart. But over the next few days those small towns will become fewer, the distances between them greater, and the only paved roads to get from one to the next are rural highways with more heavy truck traffic than we've seen anywhere else. Then we'll reach the coast of Southern Australia, where we'll see still more traffic and tourists, and before too long we'll hit Adelaide. It's the only major city we'll pass through until we reach Perth in the beginning of March, and it looms on the horizon with a feeling of dread wrapped all around.

The change of landscapes and terrain, and the different types of people and places that go along with that change, are all part of the appeal of crossing a continent. If the journey was consistent and predictable, the novelty of the thing would fade, and it would start to feel less like an adventure. But we'd be lying if we said that we won't miss the empty roads, the friendly towns, the constant words of encouragement, the genuine smiles, and all of the wonderful and easily accessed public land of New South Wales and Victoria. We rode into this part of the world unsure of what we'd find along the way besides heat and kangaroos. Now we're leaving with nostalgia and wonderful memories filling our heads, and a lightness that rises up in our hearts whenever we think back on the time we spent there. It's more than we ever could have hoped for.

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And then, unexpected but as if on cue, we cross out of the state of Victoria and into South Australia. In an instant the quality of the road turns to shit, and around the first corner the native forest is replaced by a wide sweep of planted pine trees being mauled by the last stages of a clear cut. Within a few miles rain starts to fall, light at first but quickly building into a torrential downpour. All of the sweat and dirt that has built up in the lining of our helmets over the last couple of weeks turns to liquid and rushes down into our eyes, stinging them and leaving us to look out into the gray with squinted vision. Cars pass with their headlights on and soak us from the bottom side up as they plow through puddles that didn't exist fifteen minutes earlier. It's hard to believe that at this time yesterday the sun blazed down through clear skies as the temperature pushed up toward 110.

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Welcome to South Australia.
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No really, welcome to South Australia.
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When we pull into Penola we also realize that the time has changed. But not by an hour; we're just thirty minutes behind the eastern third of the country. I didn't even know that was a legal time zone maneuver. But if ever it were going to happen, today is the day, because it's been that kind of weird morning.

There aren't a lot of great things to say about Penola. Both ends of the highway that leads into town are filled with the chattering snarl of downshifting, the shrieking hiss of pneumatic brakes, or the guttural rumble of diesel engines under hard acceleration that come from the double-trailered semi-trucks the pass north and south without end. They're part of the stream of cars and trucks and RVs that's so constant that several times we find ourselves standing and waiting for three minutes for a gap wide enough to wheel the bikes from one side of the main street to the other. It's also clear that more than half the people walking the sidewalks or getting cash from the ATM or eating pies at the bakery aren't from here. The way they dress, the way they wander around unsure of where they're going, or the way they act like they're in a big hurry to get to someplace else, doesn't line up with the easy and familiar pace of the farming towns we've been spending so much time in.

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What Penola has working for it is location. For us, the next town sits more than sixty miles to the west, against a headwind, and with nothing but farmland in between. With more rain threatening and a lack of sleep bearing down on us, our desire to keep pedaling fades with each passing minute. And so we crank only as far as the town only holiday park. It's a strange mix of tents, camper vans, travel trailers, beige-colored rental cabins, and dirty old caravans that haven't moved in at least a decade and are now someone's permanent home. The most elaborate of these sits right across from our tent, where the caravan is only a small piece of a larger homestead that includes a canvas-sided porch the size of a studio apartment, an awning that hangs over a pair of long dinner tables, a series of a dozen planters made from wooden barrels cut in half, and has massive gray and blue tarps covering every square inch of roof-like surface, giving the thing a bunker-like quality.

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There's one other strange part about the place: I'm the only one not walking around in a sweatshirt and long pants. This comes from the very simple fact that with the wind and the cold it's fucking freezing outside. After the oppressive heat of yesterday, just forty miles to the east, it's almost too much for my brain to process. But the cool comes with one big plus: it combines with the warmth of the sleeping bag to create the perfect conditions for sleep. As soon as the screen on my phone goes dark I'm lost until the morning.

Today's ride: 32 miles (51 km)
Total: 4,288 miles (6,901 km)

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