Day 162: 29 miles west of Penong, SA to 35 miles west of Yalata, SA - Four Legs on the Slow Road - CycleBlaze

February 4, 2015

Day 162: 29 miles west of Penong, SA to 35 miles west of Yalata, SA

"You can't ride the Nullarbor in the summer," people told us.

"You could die out there," they said.

"It's far too dangerous with the heat and the road trucks, and there's nowhere to get water. Please don't go that way," they asked of us.

"It's so hot that birds will be falling out of the sky," they said, as if we were setting ourselves up for a bicycle ride into the heart of an apocalypse.

What we find when we wake up couldn't be more different. The clouds that rolled in last night have stuck around and the air is cool. We ride on a road that's all but empty, with a solid tailwind helping us on, and soon we pick up a shoulder that's new and smooth and wide. The greatest challenge we face on this morning is trying to dodge the dead wombats killed by passing road trains during the night. The riding itself is peaceful and calm and we're happy to be right here, right now.

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By the time we roll into the roadhouse at Nundroo twenty miles down the road, the wobble in my rear wheel has returned. But armed with slightly more experience than we had at this time yesterday, and armed with the spoke wrench that I now carry in the left-side pocket of my shorts because it's become as critical to this trip as water, we get to work. It takes a lot of squeezing the spokes, pinging them with a flick of the finger, and tightening or loosening them a quarter turn at a time at the points where the tension is off, but fifteen minutes later with hands turned dark gray from the dirt that coats the rim we get the thing well enough in true to keep on trucking. We reward ourselves with a little bit hot food and two cold drinks that together cost roughly eighty-three dollars.

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Things to do while cycling on the Eyre Highway number 5: graffiti the bathroom stall doors at the Nundroo roadhouse.
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After Nundroo there's exactly one gas station in the next 200 miles. That's it; no water, no food, no bathrooms, just wide open Australia. And there's something very exciting about setting off across such a big distance, and knowing that we're about to travel all of it under our own power, carrying everything we need to make it through. It will be a good test of what we're capable of, and it's a test we're anxious to get started on.

We're practically there.
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A lot of other people are impressed as well. We continue to get a lot of waves and horn honks from drivers headed east, but not far from the roadhouse we get something even better. A black sedan heads toward us, the driver rolls down his window, and we watch as his right arm extends straight up with the hand balled in a fist, which he then pumps two or three times before speeding past at seventy miles per hour and disappearing into the distance forever.

"I don't think I've ever done anything in my life that would make a person do that," Kristen says to me with joy in her voice and a smile spread across her face. "I love it. That made me really happy."

I expect we'll see even more stuff like this the farther west we go. Because the more miles we put between us and Ceduna, the more it's like, Holy shit, these people are serious.

Things to do while cycling on the Eyre Highway number 6: play basketball.
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In the hour that we spent mucking around at Nundroo, every bit of cloud in the sky disappeared. Not far beyond the roadhouse we cross into the Yalata Aboriginal lands, where almost at once the gum trees become bigger, their branches more numerous, and their leaves greater in number and brighter green in color. For the first time in weeks, the farm land that has never failed to appear on either side of the fence line finally falls from view. All we see now in any direction is native bush land, just as it would have looked to someone waking through this part of the country hundreds or thousands of years ago.

We also have to crank through a lot of climbing for the first time in weeks. The road almost never runs flat, and although the ups and downs are gentle, they run substantially more up than down. With the wind behind us canceling out the breeze caused by our forward movement, we begin to sweat hard.

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The roadhouse near the town of Yalata has been closed for many years, but we're able to eat and drink and rest in a narrow strip of shade cast by a sagging awning that creaks and groans with every wind gust. It's the only meaningful break we take all afternoon. From there it's back to hill after hill after hill, mile after mile after mile. Because the landscape out here rises and falls and rolls everywhere, the highway engineers made almost no effort going around changes in elevation. Several times we ride along hilly stretches so straight that when we get passed by a truck we can look up five minutes later and still see it as a small moving dot at the crest of a far-distant hill.

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We pass the time by asking questions for which we don't know the other person's answer: What's your most embarrassing moment? Have you ever stolen anything? Did you ever cheat in school? Did you ever try to run away from home? If you were getting a Ph. D., what would you get it in? You want to have a child but you find out you're infertile; what do you do?. And of course the clincher: what's your favorite color?

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When we no longer feel like riding, we pull off down a narrow track that's more sand than dirt and head into the low-lying gum tree forest that we've been cycling past and looking into with curiosity for the last nine hours. There we climb inside the tent, eat a modest dinner, listen to Father John Misty and Cass McCombs, and watch the setting sun reflect off the low clouds that moved in over the previous hour, casting them in pastel colors and intricate textures of impossible beauty that have vanished forever fifteen minutes later. With the doors of the tent held open, we feel the cool of the breeze, we see the light of the rising moon dance as it passes through the tree branches at ever-changing angles, and when we look toward the western sky we wonder what wonderful things Australia might have in store for us tomorrow. To everyone but us it seems audacious to be crossing this continent by bicycle, but in moments like this it's impossible to imagine doing it any other way.

Today's ride: 88 miles (142 km)
Total: 5,440 miles (8,755 km)

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