Day 148: Bundaleer Forest Reserve to Mt. Remarkable National Park - Four Legs on the Slow Road - CycleBlaze

January 21, 2015

Day 148: Bundaleer Forest Reserve to Mt. Remarkable National Park

It rains when we wake up. It rains when we pack up. It rains on the way to Jamestown. It never rains hard, but the rain never stops either, and the wind is strong enough to make the morning feel just short of cold. The low clouds shroud the hay bales and tractors and sheet metal barns and farm houses behind a veil of gray. We can tell the direction of the wind by looking down at the road, because the windward side of the trees catch the rain as it flies across the sky, leaving the patch of pavement beyond the leeward side completely dry. It means a canvas of asphalt-colored stripes lays out before us for mile after mile.

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In town we stand out front of the grocery store and eat chocolate bars and potato chips from big plastic bags for second breakfast while wearing our fluorescent-colored rain jackets. Somehow the good people of Jamestown manage to hide their envy.

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Beyond town it's wheat. Wheat to the left, wheat to the right, wheat in front of us, and soon wheat behind us as far as we can see. It's wheat extending away from the road in precise lines, idle machines that rip the wheat from the ground during harvest season, and open spaces of green where one day wheat will grow. We watch a mother cat and her three littlest ones stalk mice in the fields, look out at rusted shells of metal cattle troughs that haven't been used since the eighties, and that's about the extent of it. But we're now in the kind of empty country where cars and utes only pass us once every twenty or thirty minutes, and that's a trade-off we'll make every time.

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The road takes a hard right turn in Appila, a town so small the sign doesn't list the population. Just eyeballing the place suggests it can't be more than about fifty. There's a six-by-six grid of postal boxes beneath a small off-white awning, a volunteer fire station that houses a single engine, a grassless park with bathrooms so run down we don't dare go into them for fear of never coming back out, and storefronts that look like they've been empty since long before Kristen or I were born. From the garbage cans set out by the roadside we know that people must live here, but even in the middle of the day there's nothing else to show us that this is true.

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In fifty pedal strokes we're out the other side and back among the wheat and a handful of sheep, clanking across rough bridges that pass over the reddish dirt of dry creek beds. It's a place where we ride for miles at a time without seeing a house, a barn, or even a tractor, because the scope of the wheat fields is so broad. In that way it's more like the Great Plains of America than any place we've yet traveled in rural Australia. We pedal side by side almost always, dodging a lone black and yellow lizard that scowls at us as he crosses the road, and spending hours perfecting our Aussie salute, because the flies are big, the flies are numerous, and the flies land on our eyes and noses and cheeks over and over and over again, to the point that a roadside mental breakdown seems like only a matter of when and not if.

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It feels like a different day as we roll out of Booleroo an hour and a half later. The gray of the morning is gone, and in its place the skies have turned into a mix of brilliant blues and pure whites. The flats are gone too, and instead it's gentle rolling hills. And against all odds, but with a feeling of relief that's not so far from ecstasy, the flies that hounded us all morning have disappeared. As we continue on, we move closer and closer toward Mount Remarkable. The name is technically accurate, but it's less like, "Holy shit! Look at that amazing mountain! Hold my hand, I think I might pass out from all the beauty or at least soil myself a little!" and more like, "That hill is taller than the short hills, and therefore I'm remarking that it's not the same."

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But it's a great place to ride bikes today. The green of the trees on the hillsides contrasts with the yellow grass that surrounds them, giving the landscape more depth and texture and character than it's had all day. For the first time since leaving Victoria we ride in the shadows of gum trees that hang over the road. And when we startle the cockatoos that live in these trees, we send them shooting off into the air where the different groups come together and form a single airborne community at least 200 birds deep, rising and falling and turning in unison. It's a moment so unexpected and so unlike anything we've ever before seen that both of us shout out in amazement at the exactly the same moment, in exactly the same way, and then stare up in wonder, as if it's some kind of reflex that we're powerless to control.

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With a strong tailwind pushing us on, it would be a good day to cycle into the evening, until some time just before dark. But national park land soon appears off to our left. We know that only twenty miles down the road lies Highway A1, and beyond that it's Port Augusta, the biggest city in the region. There's nothing good about either of those things, and there won't be a better place to stop for the night. And so even though there's gas left in the tank, we pull off into the woods and set up the tent in a shallow depression of the forest floor that might have once been a creek bed, in the shade of so many skinny young eucalyptus trees.

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And there the hours pass, within earshot of the road but hidden entirely, among the warbling birds, the insects incapable of traveling in a straight line, and a single big gray kangaroo. In the strictest sense it's just a patch of dirt, a few rocks, some dead branches, and a bunch of fallen leaves set among groups of trees that no one else seems to care much about. But what we see of the forest from this spot, and what the forest makes us feel in a visceral way, is freedom: to go where we choose, to do what we choose, to rest our heads where we choose. That freedom stands in such severe contrast to the fences and property lines and No Trespassing signs that made up so much of today, and that make up so much of every day in Australia.

It's such a simple pleasure just to be here — in this kind of humble landscape, in a tent, having arrived under our own power — and yet it's one of the greatest joys we know.

Today's ride: 54 miles (87 km)
Total: 4,824 miles (7,763 km)

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