Day 166: 35 miles west of Mundrabilla, WA to Nuytsland Nature Reserve - Four Legs on the Slow Road - CycleBlaze

February 8, 2015

Day 166: 35 miles west of Mundrabilla, WA to Nuytsland Nature Reserve

I'm still tired when I wake up some time after 6:00. In part it's because I haven't eaten enough during either of the last two days. In part it's because I didn't drink enough water before heading off to sleep last night. But it has more to do with the fact that my mind is filled with so many things that require its attention: the health of Kristen's bike, the health of my bike, the health and happiness of my dog back home, how the health and happiness of my dog could affect the rest of our adventure, issues related to current work clients, issues related to potential work clients, being a thoughtful and caring traveling companion, and of course this whole matter of safely crossing the Nullarbor Plain and the rest of the Eyre Highway on bicycles while trying to make sense of the wide open Australian countryside spread out before me. I try not to think about the things that aren't a direct part of this trip anymore than I have to, but I'm never all that successful at it.

I knew long before we pedaled out of Portland that this bicycle trip would be far more challenging than all of the others that came before in terms of outside distractions and obligations, but knowing that a certain outcome is going to happen still doesn't give you a guide for how best to handle it when it shows up. The last two weeks have been a heavy mental burden, and although it looks as if the worst of the stress has passed and that both roads ahead appear calm, there's a lag that exists between what's happening now and the level of anxiety and concern that fills that rooms and corridors of my brain. Until that lag also passes, half my mind will stay somewhere far away from the long and narrow line of tan-colored pavement laid out before me.

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We continue west in the middle of yet another beautiful morning that could not be more perfect for cycling. The flatness passes by at an easy fourteen or fifteen miles per hour with the help of a tailwind that now comes more from the east than the southeast, and as it's been for more than a week now, the temperature never turns hot. Just about everybody who passes headed east honks and waves, to the point that the atmosphere out on the Eyre Highway starts to feel almost festive. Even the drivers of the trucks pulling three trailers that have big red block letters on both the front and back that read Explosives get in on the honking and waving.

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When we find a shaded spot to rest, we listen to the fat black crows that are present all along the Nullarbor call out and respond to each other in harsh, grating tones. We look up at spider webs that spread five feet across between branches in the eucalyptus trees, and also the spiders within them that are so big they'd barely fit in the palm of Kristen's hand. Little birds dart within the branches of that same tree, dipping their beaks into the tiny flowers at the ends of the branches in search of nectar. This is dry and sparse country when you look out at it with the lens zoomed out, on the scale of quarter and half and full miles. But with the heavy hand of human interference having hardly touched it even at this late stage in the bulldozing push of civilization, the life that exists out here is diverse and intricate and unquestionably thriving.

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Almost all of the run to Madura feels easy and free: flat ground, strong tailwind, next to no traffic. But to make it to the roadhouse and all of the burgers and soda and candy bars and moderately clean toilets that lie inside we have to climb halfway up the first meaningful hill we've seen in days. In true Nullarbor fashion, this small rise is called Madura Pass and it comes complete with a lower speed limit, a passing lane, and a sign to mark its location.

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After inhaling a pair burgers with the lot served by a grump of a woman with a permanent I-wish-I-didn't-have-to-talk-to-your-dumb-ass look spread across her face, we load up on water and Snickers bars and return to the highway. The second half of the climb up the pass-that's-not-really-a-pass is steeper, and with the wind blocked by the hillsides behind us I sweat more than I have since our climb over the Jamberoo Mountain Road back on our first day of riding in this country. It's made all the more difficult by the fact that I do it in the middle chain ring as a show of solidarity with Kristen, who because of a fraying front derailleur cable isn't shifting out of hers. There's also the matter of the unsettled mass of lunch that churns and groans as it makes its way from our stomachs to whatever part of the digestive system comes after the stomach.

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The climb takes us up from the Roe Plains, where we've been since just past Eucla, to the broad expanse of the Hampton Tablelands. Once we're on top of the plateau the breeze returns, the flats return, and we get back to the business of cranking hard to the west. We rumble over the harsh metal grating of cattle guards, and we don't go more than five minutes at a time without the horrible stink of rotting kangaroos filling our noses. (This isn't an exaggeration; the amount of animal death caused by this highway is staggering.) The kangaroos that haven't been killed by road trains are all camped out unseen beneath the shade of a tree, leaving the bush beyond still and quiet. And even though we're on the only highway linking the western and eastern parts of Australia, there's so little traffic on this Sunday afternoon that it feels like we're on some minor country road.

Things to do while cycling on the Eyre Highway number 18: get ready to head back to America by riding on the right side of the road.
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"I'm not sure if I'm smelling a dead animal or myself," Kristen says as we pull to a stop in the first patch of roadside shade we've in the twenty-five miles since leaving Madura.

We're overdue for some quality time in a laundry room, but with good weather and tailwinds and many hundreds of miles of flat and empty country ahead of us it's hard to carve out a couple of hours to make that happen.

We see exactly one mailbox the entire day. When I say that there's no one out here, it's the literal truth.

Things to do while cycling on the Eyre Highway number 19: pretend that your mirror is a CB radio and talk into it like a trucker with an accent from the American South. Come on back!.
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The afternoon fills itself with the elements of a typical day spent riding across a continent by bicycle: mentally converting signs that list kilometers into miles, staring down at the tread of the front tire, flicking boogers, checking the rear view mirror, and watching a single long strand of a spider's web that hangs off the back of Kristen's bicycle glint in the light of the early evening sun. There's nothing breathtaking or life-changing about it; it's just simple, uncomplicated cycling. But it's enjoyable and satisfying all the same, we're impressed about the progress we're making and how good we feel, and there's still nothing else we'd rather be doing right now.

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Despite a passenger yelling out "There's a beer waiting for you in Cocklebiddy!" from the window of a passing SUV, with maybe half an hour of daylight hanging in the sky we stop ten miles short of town and pull off onto a rough track of rock and dirt that leads into a nature reserve that, from the looks of it, maybe six people visit on a good day. We find a protected spot among a small group of trees with the right combination of seclusion, temperature, and humidity that we can set up the tent with the rain fly off, which is exactly how we like it.

The place has no flies, no mosquitoes, and is far enough away from the highway that we can hear the howling ruckus of road trains approaching and then receding into the distance but never see them. The trees are dark outlines against the pale purple and orange of the sky, and darting among them we watch birds in greater numbers and varieties than we've seen in any single place for weeks. The ground is rich with ants at work and crying crickets. Dragonflies bounce off the mesh of the tent every so often.

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After darkness falls, we look up through the branches of the trees to see satellites traveling in perfect arcs from west to east, and shooting stars flashing and then burning out in just longer than the blink of an eye. It's a perfect corner of the outback, and tonight we have it all to ourselves. After a long string of nights spent just off the highway in or near dusty rest areas, it's a welcome reminder of all the reasons why we're in love with cycling across Australia.

Today's ride: 87 miles (140 km)
Total: 5,754 miles (9,260 km)

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