Day 170: Balladonia, WA to Dundas Nature Reserve - Four Legs on the Slow Road - CycleBlaze

February 12, 2015

Day 170: Balladonia, WA to Dundas Nature Reserve

The air is so still when we wake up that we can hear the muffled back and forth of a conversation between truck drivers at the roadhouse, even though it's a quarter of a mile away. With our bodies and minds tired, our legs muscles stiff, and random patches of our skin still red and warm to the touch, our desire to get packed and return to the road at first light has managed to make itself scarce. With the air outside just cool enough to make unwrapping ourselves from the sleeping bag seem like a terrible idea, we grab an extra hour of rest and dream about taking half a dozen more.

The final countdown.
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At some vague point during all of the other vanquishing yesterday evening, we also crossed the western edge of the Nullarbor Plain and in the process inadvertently vanquished it as well. Now instead of a low-slung landscape where stubby eucalypts and an ocean of shrubs dominate our view, we look out on taller gum trees than we've seen anywhere in the last week. Thick forests of them wall us in on both sides and stretch out in front of us as far as we can see.

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The trade-off for the reemergence of the trees and the end of the plains is the start of gently rolling hills that trend upward like a long set of stairs, and that will take us beyond 1,500 feet as we cross over the spine of the Fraser Range before we continue out last charge across the Eyre Highway to Norseman. What still hasn't changed is that we continue to find the shoulder littered with the rotting bodies of dead kangaroos. Even though this has been a sad and disturbing constant since before we reached the Nullarbor, by now it has become clear that it's something we have not and will never become numb to seeing.

Things to do while cycling on the Eyre Highway number 26: push-ups.
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Heading down the backside of a short descent we happen upon a couple of guys with machetes in hand wearing khaki-colored outfits and hats that make them look like they're about to head off on safari. Based on that short description, it's the kind of scenario where a reasonable person would smile and wave and just keep on cranking. This is what Kristen does. But I smile and wave and then squeeze the front brake hard and squeak to a stop. It turns out that they're not about to murder a passing cyclist or bury the body of a passing cyclist they previously killed, but rather that they're about to walk into the bush and collect seed samples for the Kings Park Botanic Gardens in Perth. Judging by the dirty ute and the dirty caravan being towed behind it, they're on a seed-collecting mission best described as epic.

They also tell me that we're now riding through what are known as the Great Western Woodlands, which are believed to be the largest temperate forest left in the world, covering an area of more than 75,000 square miles. It's a place where you could just walk into the woods and in no time at all find yourself setting foot where no other human has ever stepped, and where no other human ever will. Having grown up in a modern urban society, where every bit of land had been mapped and platted and surveyed, it's a concept that's difficult for me to wrap my brain around. But as I stare off into the dense woods that roll over hill after hill and keep going all the way to the horizon without a single road or track to be seen within them, it becomes clear that the intrusive hand of man remains the exception out here, not the rule.

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The first road sign in more than 600 miles.
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Later we're cranking up a long, gentle upslope when we see a white hatchback approaching us with a small RV driving behind it. Both are going slow, there's a narrow gap between them, and the car has a flashing yellow caution light attached to it and its rear hatch is wide open. I'm not quite sure what we're looking at, or what they could possibly be doing out here, until we draw almost alongside of them. That's when I see tucked behind the car, in the windbreak of the open hatch, a lone rider on a very expensive Italian carbon fiber road bicycle. And in this instant I kind of lose my mind.

Bicycle touring isn't the only acceptable way to travel long distances by bike; I get that. And I respect the idea that everyone has different goals and motivations and methods when it comes to how they travel, and what sort of things they hope to gain as a result of that travel. But the guy who just passed us nevertheless turns me almost apoplectic. He doesn't just have one support vehicle, but two, both churning through many gallons of gas every day. And they're doing it to help out a guy who doesn't even have the toughness to ride into a headwind, and who because of his softness can't even see anything that's going on around him, because all he can focus on is not plowing into the back of the car that's three feet away from his front tire. In exchange for all of this, he gets to breathe in gas fumes all day long and experience almost none on the magic that makes this part of the country so wonderful and inspiring. It's one of the most ridiculous bicycle-related things I've ever seen, and I've lived in Portland.

Things to do while cycling on the Eyre Highway number 27: relieve yourself wherever you feel like it.
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I'm still trying to pull myself back together after the abomination that just breezed past us when a truck smaller than a road train but still big enough to shake the ground shoots past. It's loaded down with three brand new caravans, headed east. It seems as if they make them in Perth, and then ship them many thousands of miles overland to Sydney or Melbourne. After sitting on a lot there for a few weeks or a few months, people with oversized savings accounts or at least better than average credit buy them, load them up with TVs and air conditioners and toilet paper, hook up an SUV to the trailer hitch, and then head out on a grand adventure to ... Perth.

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By the time we roll into Fraser Range Station, having crested the range and started down the back side of it, my head pounds and my body feels weak and unsettled from hunger. I've been heading this way for the better part of a week, because with each passing day since leaving Ceduna I've eaten less food than my body needs to stay strong. Even though we packed as much food into our panniers as we could, and even though I've eaten more roadhouse burgers and sausage rolls and potato wedges than any reasonable person should in a year, it still isn't enough. Every night I go to bed hungrier and weaker than the night before, and every morning I wake up a little more tired, a little more weary. On the heels of yesterday's 114-mile odyssey I've pushed myself about as far as I can go. Tomorrow we reach Norseman and the first grocery store in more than 750 miles, and it won't be a moment too soon.

Where mining workers sleep.
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What mining workers drink.
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As I pay for potato chips and candy bars and soda — because that's all they have at the little camp store — the woman behind the counter at the tells us it was 120 degrees here two days ago. Holy hell. I can't even start to imagine what that kind of heat feels like, or what you'd do in that situation besides smoosh your face into the grated surface of an air conditioner. But what I know for certain is that it was a good idea to take the day off when we did.

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Australia's coolest van.
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We set out again in the late afternoon. I have the strength to ride again, but not by much. The highway trends downhill, and because the clouds never really faded, the big heat we've been fearing for days continues not to show up. Instead we ride in a world that's overcast and a little humid, more like a Midwest summer afternoon than something out of the Australian outback.

We continue to skewer the rider we saw earlier who was pedaling behind one of his two support vehicles to avoid the headwind that anyone who's spent more than ten minutes researching cycling across the Eyre Highway knows exists almost every day of the summer. It's a real bastardization of what it means to cycle across part or all of a continent, and for some reason I can't get it out if my head.

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I imagine the guy back home in Perth or Adelaide or Melbourne sometime after he gets to wherever he's going, hanging out with people who maybe work with him but aren't good enough friends to know the details of his life. Someone mentions the Eyre Highway or the Nullarbor, and this glint immediately forms in his eyes as he calculates the perfect moment to tell these people that, “Actually, you know, I rode all the way across it on a bicycle.” They'll all be impressed, amazed, surprised that such a thing was even possible. At some point they'll ask him how tough it was, to ride all those miles, to travel all that way, and to do it in the summer of all times of the year. And he'll lean back and sigh and say something like, “You know, it took a long time, but I can't say it was all that hard. I kept going day after day and it just kind of happened.” They'll be so awed by the story that they'll buy him a beer, or shake his hand, or at least sing his praises to the people seated at the next table who don't really care but will act interested anyway.

But deep down, that guy will know it's a hollow victory. He'll remember the two cyclists headed the other way, carrying everything they own, all by themselves, uphill. He'll think about the fact that he did next to no planning to make sure he had enough water and food to make it through to Ceduna. He'll know that he cheated himself by avoiding that most fundamental of all cycling elements, the headwind.

And so will we.

No vans, no cars, just a lot of hard fucking work.
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We continue on among the woodlands, past dry lake beds and patches of yellow grass so bright they're almost fluorescent, with the air thick with unusual forest smells we can't identify. When we get tired of pedaling, we just walk off into the woods and set up the tent. No sooner have we crawled inside than bull ants begin to dart across the mesh above our heads and the scaffolding of poles that holds it aloft, inspecting the strange collection of people and things that have wandered into their secluded corner of Australia.

As the birds start to quiet down in the stillness of the late evening, the crickets ratchet up the volume to take their place. At scattered intervals the dark gray clouds above us let loose a few small drops of rain that fall on to the fly with a dull pop, but the angry gray mass that looks like a storm never amounts to anything more. Norseman and the end of the Eyre Highway lie just over forty miles to the west of us, and every time I think about that, and about how hard we've worked to reach it, I can't help but crack a satisfied little smile.

Today's ride: 78 miles (126 km)
Total: 6,000 miles (9,656 km)

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