Day 150: 15 miles south of Port Augusta, SA to 18 miles south of Whyalla, SA - Four Legs on the Slow Road - CycleBlaze

January 23, 2015

Day 150: 15 miles south of Port Augusta, SA to 18 miles south of Whyalla, SA

It's a night of half-sleep with the steady stream of massive trucks and the endless crinkling of the rain fly by wind that fades in strength but never disappears. The landscape stays the same when we continue on: short and skinny trees, bushes of green and blue-green, patches of orange-toned dirt and rocks, and not a building or water tanks or even a single sheep to be seen. There's no sign of who owns the land, if anything has ever been done to it, or if anything ever will. It means that all that's out here is the road, the pipeline, and the railroad line, all running parallel on the same narrow band of earth toward Whyalla.

We're coming for you, Western Australia.
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That road runs dead flat, but despite being in what feels like the middle of nothing it's heavy with traffic, because every car and ute and semi-truck headed up or down the eastern side of the peninsula is on this one highway. Paved or unpaved, there's no other road to be found. Along the way we look for signs of the accident that closed the road last night. On the first curve in seven miles we find it, with six orange traffic cones marking the spot of what's already clear.

From the charred pavement on the far side of the road we can tell that the car burst into flames after the impact. Beyond that, we see pieces of bumpers, cracked sheets of safety glass in a thousand pieces but all stuck together, a bank of truck of batteries, an oil filter, a sheared-off suspension arm, and a bunch of unidentifiable bits and pieces stacked in little mounds on opposite sides of the highway. Before we started riding this morning we read a newspaper article about the crash, so we already know what looking at the scene would tell you was the predictable outcome: the driver of the truck was treated for a head injury, while all three people in the car are dead.

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What's not certain is who's at fault. It's the sort of accident where someone must have drifted across the center line in the middle of the bend, with too much speed while turning left, by too aggressively cutting the apex while turning right, or by falling asleep at the wheel in either direction. But the wide spread of debris and the breadth of the dark marks on the pavement hold no clues that we can make sense of — not that it matters for anything beyond our own morbid curiosity.

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But life goes on all the same. Cars zoom by us going way over the speed limit, they overtake each other at terribly dangerous times, semi-trucks tailgate small family sedans, and we continue to check our mirrors every five seconds because we don't trust a single one of them. As the morning grows older, the volume of traffic doubles, and the shoulder turns rougher and more ball-crunching. And a headwind turns each mile into a grind, as it will for every mile over the next two days, until we reach the first paved road that can take us west.

Still we manage. It's slow, but we know that if we just keep cranking we'll get to Whyalla by the middle of the day, rest up, eat a huge lunch, drink as much water as we can, and then push on strong, diligently, workmanlike. For a long time it works, but then, out in the middle of nowhere, for no reason that we can figure out, the shoulder disappears. In an instant it turns the riding into a horrible game of watching the cars headed toward us and watching the cars coming up from behind, and deciding at what point to dive off into the gravel to avoid getting sideswiped by a Toyota Land Cruiser who won't wait for oncoming traffic to pass.

To limit the number of obstacles the cars around us have to worry about, we ride nose to tail, so that we form one mass of bicycle instead of two individuals. But this is harder than it might seem, because Kristen and I tend to travel at very different speeds when it's windy. Even though she carries less gear than I do, Kristen still has four panniers and a giant sleeping bag that generate drag, and she has to fight against this force using legs that are shorter and less powerful than mine. This means that when we ride close, I have to constantly make sure I keep a measured pace so that I don't run into her back wheel and send us both sprawling all over the highway. Combined with looking forward and then back, bracing myself against the wind, trying to avoid the four-inch dropoff at the edge of the road, and yelling out when we need to shoot off into that dropoff, it makes for one hell of a shit ride. This stretch is one of many reasons why it takes us six hours to travel thirty miles on some of the flattest terrain we've ever seen.

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Our reward is Whyalla, which has the kind of dystopian air about it that every steel mill town is required to, with clouds of steam and smoke rising everywhere, open flames shooting into the afternoon sky, and a dense network of pipes running above ground and overhead wherever you look. Adding to the charm, Whyalla is also the base for massive mining operations in the area.

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That's normal, right?
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It's a town of bad tattoos and pit bulls and sad-looking parks with more brown grass than green. It's the kind of place where young guys wear t-shirts with gun manufacturer logos across the chest, where most of the businesses look like they barely turn a profit, and where the favorite mode of transportation is a beat-up old Holden Commodore sedan with an expensive aftermarket muffler, ground effects, and bass that thumps from cheap and buzzing speakers with so much force that it rattles the license plate frames. The grocery store, however, is top shelf. The more we stuff our faces with food, the more the bad feelings of the ride into the city disappear.

I just can't.
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We head out of town in the early evening, and for the first time in the five months we've been riding we carry more water than what fits in our bottles. We know it's sixty miles to the next town, but with the constant and strong headwinds it'll feel more like ninety or a hundred, and there isn't a single place to fill up along the way. And so I ride with a five-liter jug of water strapped to the rear rack, in a kind of test run for what's to come on the long townless stretches of the Nullarbor that once seemed so far away but now will be laid out in front of us in just over a week.

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We head past trees and bushes, bushes and trees, and animals hidden away deep within them. It's terrain so flat and featureless that it takes more than fifteen miles for the low-lying sprawl of Whyalla to disappear from our rear view mirrors.

But for all of the things that it isn't, what this part of Australia is, is pure. So much of what we've seen here and in New Zealand and America over the past five months has the fingerprints of humans all over it, from houses and factories and airports to dams, bridges, tunnels, and air that's hazy with pollution. Out here, beyond the narrow strip of road and a simple fence line, the country stretches unbroken and uninterrupted all the way to the horizon, as I imagine it must have looked 200 or 2,000 or 20,000 years ago. It's a scale that's difficult to comprehend.

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And tonight it's our home. Half an hour before sunset we notice a narrow set of tracks leading away from the highway to the west. We follow them, and a few hundred feet on we find a patch of dirt sheltered from the wind and the view of the highway by a semi-circle of small gum trees and low-lying scrub. Inside the tent we eat dinner to the sound of the heavy breeze swirling through the branches of those trees and nothing else but our laughter.

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When the explosion of color from the sunset fades, stars begin to poke holes in the cover of darkness above and look down upon the sliver of the crescent moon that shines through a custard-colored haze of yellow low in the western sky. Soon the crickets start to come out, although their chirps often get muffled by the rush of the wind. We see no man-made lights in any direction. It's our first night in what feels like the proper Australian outback and we couldn't have asked for better.

Today's ride: 52 miles (84 km)
Total: 4,930 miles (7,934 km)

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