Day 19 : Saturday – From Eucla to Madura (182.99 km)
Oh Lord, what a day!
The wind howled all night, at times so strong that it threatened to take off the top of the campervan. The nasty kind of wind that rocks a van even when it is stationary. I climbed out of the van into the early pre-dawn darkness and found that the wind was from the south-west. Woe! In the bathroom I bumped into two of the Australian cyclists who were full of smiles. For them it would be a tailwind and they crowed at the very thought. But for me it would be a headwind.
A howling headwind that was to be utterly relentless for one hundred and eighty-two kilometres. At times I would struggle to maintain a speed of fifteen kph on a flat road. A howling headwind is incredibly tiring for a cyclist as you are forced to use low gears and work very hard, yet the slow progress adds hours to the length of the trip. At twenty kph it would take me over nine hours to complete the day’s ride, while at twenty-six kph it would take just seven hours.
I left the Eucla caravan park and almost immediately started down the Eucla Pass, which really doesn’t deserve the appellation “Pass” as it is more of a short downhill that leads to the coastal plain. If I needed a clearer idea of the effect of the wind, I was presented with it right here on the Eucla Pass. A fair downhill and a rested pair of legs, but the highest speed that I reached was 31 kph. It would indeed be a long day.
The Hampton Tableland, rising well above the coastal plain, was clearly visible on the northern side of the road all day as I cycled along, a gentle reminder that I will climb back onto the Tableland tomorrow. The road along the plain was flat with the vegetation varying from open veld with scattered trees to fairly dense bush. Most of this stretch was unfenced and in spite of the road signs warning road-users to be on the lookout for wombats, camels and kangaroos, I saw no wild animals. Or domestic animals, for that matter.
Rather unusually, today I passed three stretches of road that were designated as airstrips for the Royal Flying Doctor Services. Marked with the parallel white lines that always mark the beginning and end of a runway, each stretch was 1500 metres long and on occasion the road had been widened slightly. It was quite a thrill to see this physical evidence of a life-preserving service that I first read about as a kid.
Because of the wind, into the teeth of which I hurled many expletives, I took my first break today after just forty kilometres. I sat in the van and had a cup of tea, wondering how long I would be able to continue. Riding was just so soul destroying. Okay, time to bite the bullet.
I reached Mundrabilla Roadhouse after sixty-six kilometres and I stopped again, this time for something to eat. My usual stop for food is after one hundred kilometres, so I was well aware of the effect that the wind was having on me, both physically and mentally.
I stopped more frequently in order to make each stretch shorter and less intimidating, riding from one stop to the next, rather than dwelling on the overall distance to be covered for the day. An old trick, well practised by cyclists, marathon runners and probably by all practitioners of endurance sports, but one that, however illogical it may seem, is greatly effective.
In any terms, this was a long and tiring day and it was a great relief to finally reach the Madura Roadhouse. By the time I arrived it was growing dark and eleven hours had elapsed since I left Eucla. To me it felt like a lifetime. Several times during the day I had thought of stopping. What would be the difference, after all, if I completed the ride tomorrow, when the wind had dropped? It wasn’t a race that I was on. I wasn’t obliged to complete a certain distance each and every day. I could justify stopping in a dozen different ways. But on reaching Madura I was quietly self-satisfied with the achievement. I had been sorely tested by the wind and I hadn’t succumbed.
Day 20 : Sunday – From Madura to Caiguna (154.91 km)
I was a little tardy getting up this morning and so left Madura Roadhouse a little later than planned. It was a cold and cloudy morning, with a slight headwind that caused my heart to plummet. Would it pick up to the levels experienced the day before?
The Madura Pass, which winds its way up onto the Hampton Tableland, provided a fair challenge in the early morning, particularly as the Roadhouse is at the foot of the pass and therefore there was no time to warm up before tackling the hill. It is not too severe, though, and I was well rewarded for the effort by the splendid views afforded of the coastal plain as I approached the summit.
The vegetation on the Tableland is denser, with more trees than we saw on the coastal plain, but the terrain is equally level, with few hills. My legs were tired, though, and my backside quite sore from the long hours in the saddle yesterday, as well as the accumulated effects of the past three weeks.
The wind dropped as the sun climbed a little higher, in complete contrast with the last few days when the wind gathered strength as the morning progressed. What a blessed change!
I returned to my routine of stopping at fifty and one hundred kilometres and literally revelled in travelling along at a slightly higher speed. Cocklebiddy, which I passed after about eighty-five kilometres, turned out to be no more than a typical roadhouse. I was so taken with the name that somehow I expected there to be more to it than that. But it did provide Jane with an opportunity to buy lunch.
We intended ending the day’s trip at Caiguna, which lies quite close to the spot where Edward John Eyres’ expedition ran into its serious problems with the murder of his companion, John Baxter. A few kilometres from Caiguna we passed another roadside notice to set our clocks back, signalling our entry into a fourth time zone since we started.
In Caiguna a group of roadworkers had taken over the caravan park and motel, leaving the travellers to find accommodation elsewhere. This was no problem to those folk who arrived early and could simply drive the one hundred and fifty kilometres or so to the next roadhouse, but to us it presented a problem. We set up camp in a picnic area fairly close to the motel and I was able to shower and change at the facilities within the motel complex. The fact that we did not have power for the night was only a minor inconvenience as we managed quite well without it.
Day 21 : Monday – From Caiguna to Balladonia (182.28 km)
Soon after leaving the picnic site at Caiguna on a bitterly cold morning I found myself on the “Ninety Mile Straight”. This famous bit of road is said to be the longest stretch of straight road in Australia and perhaps in the world, extending 146,7 kilometres without a curve or corner. It is not level, though, rising and falling quite regularly so that the impression is not quite as striking as one might think. However, one does come over rise after rise only to see the road stretching as straight as a die into the far distance, which is quite daunting to a cyclist.
It was so cold when I set out this morning that for the first time I wore long pants over my cycling shorts and two long sleeved tops. I kept these on for the first hour, after which I was able to strip down to my more usual and more comfortable attire.
Twenty-five kilometres from Caiguna I met an Australian couple travelling eastwards on their recumbent three-wheel pedal cycles. They had packed all their worldly possessions onto their bikes and had set off, in their retirement, to see the world at 80 to 100 kilometres per day. They even eschewed formal camping sites and caravan parks, preferring to camp at convenient spots adjacent to the road wherever they happened to be when the urge took them to stop. They seemed to be having a great time, but their recumbents were very low to the ground and I wondered about their visibility as they headed into the rising sun. The cab of a road train is so much higher that I had grave doubts that a weary driver, squinting into the early morning sun, would see them in good time.
At the end of our brief meeting we couldn’t wish each other “May the wind be at your back”, the usual good wishes from one cyclist to another, as we were heading in opposite directions and such good wishes to one would be equally bad wishes to the other. We therefore settled for “May you have no wind at all!”
The Ninety Mile Straight took me five hours and twelve minutes to cover. A long time to be travelling in a straight line on a cycle.
There were a few patches of what appeared to be wetlands as we approached Balladonia, although I could see no surface water and I saw several groups of ibises clustered in the area. There were also quite a number of emus along this stretch and also the inevitable dead kangaroos. On the outskirts of Balladonia I saw the first red kangaroo, unfortunately also part of the roadkill.
The Balladonia Hotel Motel is a splendid complex, with caravan park, motel, roadhouse and even a museum, part of which is devoted to the skylab which fell to earth in this district in 1979 and fragments of which are included in the display. Another interesting display covers the car rallies held in 1953, 1954 and 1955 that covered vast distances around Australia. Fifty years ago traversing the Nullabor Plain must have been a very different proposition from the relatively simple trip that it is today.
All very pleasant and relaxing, but the most pleasant and relaxing bit was the Emu Export Beer that we sampled for the first time over dinner in the restaurant.
Day 22 : Tuesday – From Balladonia to Norseman (191.11 km)
We are now operating on Western Australia time and first light is at six o’clock. So it was at six o’clock that I took to the road. It was cold and overcast, with not a breath of wind. Ideal weather for cycling. But my body was just not with the programme. I struggled from the outset and essentially struggled all day. The fact that there was a fair amount of climbing as the road crossed over the Fraser Ranges didn’t help, but in truth these hills are really nothing too daunting. Some of them are fairly long, but they are not steep enough to cause any undue strain.
Norseman may be regarded as the official end of the Nullabor Plains, but the terrain we passed through today bore little relation to that of the Plains proper. We passed through magnificent forests of eucalyptus, many of them with copper coloured trunks that were absolutely stunning in the morning sunlight. The forests were filled with the sounds of birds.
Approaching Norseman we passed several water filled pans, the first surface water that we have seen since starting the crossing. It was nice to see the number of ducks that had made themselves at home on these dams.
Day 23 : Wednesday – Norseman (0 km)
I had a rest day in Norseman!
I felt tired to the point of illness last evening and decided that it would be a good idea to take a day off cycling. Although I hadn’t planned any rest days, I figured that as I was ahead of schedule, a day off wouldn’t seriously compromise my chances of completing the trip.
What a pleasure it was, not to have to rise before the sun! I lay in bed for perhaps an extra hour and felt quite guilty as a result. The balance of the morning was spent replying to an accumulation of emails, shopping and wondering around Norseman. With a population of 1500 it is a fairly small place and there isn’t much to be seen in Norseman. We did learn, however, that it is one of the few towns in the world that is named after a horse. It seems that one Laurie Sinclair was on his way home from working in the Coolgardie goldfields and stopped off here to visit his brother. He tethered his horse, which was named Hardy Norseman, and was surprised to find on his return that the horse had uncovered a gold nugget. This turned out to be the first evidence of quite a profitable seam of gold. The memory of Hardy Norseman is honoured in the name of the town and also in a statue that stands in the main road.
In the afternoon I spent some time cleaning and servicing my bike.
Day 24 : Thursday – From Norseman to Coolgardie (167.18 km)
Back to the established routine. Up well before the sun, breakfast of muesli, toast and tea, out on the road as soon as it was light enough to be clearly visible to my fellow road-users.
I left Norseman and headed north up the Coolgardie – Esperance Highway, passing several rather spectacular salt-pans just outside of the town, the biggest of which is known as Lake Cowan. Not quite as big or as brightly-white as some of those in South Africa, but quite impressive just the same.
The road was fairly narrow in parts, and although there seemed to be fewer road trains, there were sufficient to ensure that I had some interesting moments. There were also quite a number of uphills, but in keeping with most of the other Highways, they were not steep. I wondered if these roads were engineered for the road trains, winding along the contours whenever possible and avoiding any steep climbs or passes.
After approximately ninety kilometres I passed the settlement of Widgiemooltha. Well, to be more accurate I passed the Widgie Roadhouse, which is located at the edge of the highway; the settlement of Widgiemooltha itself being some distance away and remaining undisturbed by the highway traffic. Another delightful name, Widgiemooltha. A little further on we passed Lake Lefroy which, unlike the lakes we had seen earlier in the day, actually had water in it.
I benefited from the fact that I had a rest day yesterday, in that, although I never felt at my best and it was one of the “long days”, I wasn’t really tired and my legs felt ready to take on the rest of the trip.
It was cool and cloudy for the first part of the morning, quite pleasant weather for cycling, but after eleven o’clock the clouds gave way to clear skies and it became suffocatingly hot. The wind from the north was slight and a bit of an irritation, but nothing like the menace of the wind on Saturday.
We passed signboards marking many mining sites between Norseman and Coolgardie, some of which appeared to be abandoned while others were still being operated. The vegetation was a delight, with many forests of numerous varieties of gum trees.
A water pipeline ran adjacent to the road for most of the day. This pipeline has a fascinating history that goes back over a hundred years, the work of the engineer Charles Yelverton O’Connor. This ambitious water scheme now supplies water to approximately 33,000 rural and town services, from Mundaring, through the wheatbelt to the goldfields. The water is used for household and commercial purposes, for farm stock and even for the mining industry. In keeping with modern trends, many towns now supplement their water supply from this scheme by using treated wastewater to irrigate playing fields and other public areas.
At the outskirts of Coolgardie, which announced itself as a “Ghost Mining Town”, Jane was stopped by a traffic officer who wanted to check her driver’s licence. I stopped a few moments later to see if there was a problem and when the officer heard where I had cycled from, he shook his head. “You should be driving, mate. That’s why they invented cars.”
We found a convenient caravan park and spent the afternoon wandering through the historic streets of Coolgardie. There are wonderful information boards at almost every corner of Bayley Street, which ran through the centre of the town, revealing interesting snippets of the local history and marking the location of the significant buildings from the early days. Although it isn’t really a ghost town in the strictest sense, Coolgardie has clearly past its heyday as a gold mining centre. All good things must come to an end, but it is rather sad when a town outlives its original purpose without an alternative purpose being found for its existence.
Some of the shops in Coolgardie are absolutely incredible. One in particular was packed with enough furniture and knick-knacks to stock several shops of similar size. Walking through the shop one was forced to manoeuvre with the utmost care to avoid dislodging a precariously balanced item from a shelf or treading on some artefact standing carelessly on the floor. Furniture, paintings, second hand long playing records. The soundtrack from Elvis Presley’s Blue Hawaii was available, the cardboard cover curling a little with age. Dolls, books and toys, each with a veneer of dust of varying density, presumably proportional to the length of the item’s stay in the store.
Many of the shops and even the office of the caravan park in which we stayed had gold nuggets for sale. Only an expert, I thought, perhaps overly cynical, should dare to buy gold from a caravan park.
Day 25 : Friday – From Coolgardie to Southern Cross (186.3 km)
Today was the start of the Easter weekend and the traffic was noticeably heavier than on previous days. There were fewer road trains and other commercial vehicles, but there were far more family cars as people dashed off to who knows where for the weekend. Pleasantly, the driving was generally of a high standard in spite of the fact that most people must have been in a hurry to reach their holiday destinations.
During the early part of the morning it was warm and cloudless, with a light tailwind as I headed east down the Great Eastern Highway, but this good fortune was not to last as the wind reversed itself before too long, blowing quite strongly from the west for rest of the day.
Shortly after passing the camel farm situated on the outskirts of Coolgardie, the traffic was sent on a two kilometre diversion as a bridge on the highway was being repaired. The detour was a fairly firm surface, but was covered by a few centimetres of thick, red mud. This mud was drawn up by my wheels and stuck to anything that it touched. How can anything be so sticky? By the time I had completed the detour the wheels of my bike could hardly turn, for the mud was caked so thickly around the brakes and between the forks. I found a piece of stiff rubber at the roadside, presumably once part of someone’s tyre, and after removing the wheels I spent a good ten minutes scraping as much of the mud away from the moving parts of the bike as was possible.
I noticed that the water pipeline is of greater diameter along this stretch; presumably because a greater volume of water is being carried to Coolgardie and neighbouring Kalgoolie. The pipeline rests on concrete or metal bollards well above the surface of the ground most of the time, but dives below the ground quite regularly to pass below the side roads.
I passed Bulla Bulling about thirty kilometres from Calgoorlie, consisting of the now customary shop, bottle shop and filling station. Nearby was a mounted display explaining the workings of the water pipeline to any interested passers-by.
There were a surprising number of uphills today and I felt rather tired from early on. In truth I have lost a lot of weight and my reserves seem to be all but depleted and it was a matter of grinding out the rest of the day with one eye on the horizon, looking for the end. Which, eventally, I reached.
After checking into the caravan park at Southern Cross I hosed my bike down to get rid of the remaining mud from the early morning before taking my customary shower.
>> Part Seven