11 May – 22 June 2015
This section covers Adelaide to Margaret River across the Nullarbor desert to Norseman and then south, west and north near the coast towards Perth. It took 4 weeks to do the 3,050k from Adelaide to Margaret River south of Perth where I had a great stay for 2 weeks with Ray - a friend of Allan’s friend Nigel in Adelaide.
Before heading out from Adelaide I joked that the trip would be about survival because I had little motivation to do a long stretch with so few highlights and no “prize” in the end. My motivation was seriously challenged along the way and I was right about the survival – though not because of the wind, the endless long roads or getting enough water, but because of body and bike challenges. After 10 days I got a pressure sore on my right buttock which took over a week to heal to a not-too-painful level, and later I was in terrible knee agony for many days after battling the constant rolling hills in the strong/fierce headwinds.
My new rear tire exploded after only 650k so I had to use my spare tire before I even began the 1,200k desert crossing and after 2 weeks, my bike frame broke in the desert with 400k to the nearest small town Norseman. Fortunately, I managed to patch the bike up with gorilla tape and cable ties, which surprisingly held the remaining 1,500k to Perth. It was interesting how my first reaction was getting the bike back on the road – some days later it led to more existential considerations. If the bike couldn't be fixed what would I spend my life on? Looking for a new meaning/purpose in life I can stop the trip whenever something more interesting comes along, but if nothing does I still have 2½-3 years to go – suddenly it could be imminent as I don’t expect to buy a new bike should it break or be stolen.
Talking about “existential” many people ask me what I get out of biking especially a long ride across a desert where little change. I think the question arises from a holiday perspective of limited time so why not use it on something more interesting? My answer is there’s always something to learn or experience though it might be little compared to the time or distance. On this leg I got confirmed that I really like warm weather, interesting people and beautiful nature/wildlife – and there was very little of either. Morning and evening camps became my favourite times of day not least because of the many incredible sunrises and sunsets.
Instead of commenting everything in timely order, I have written some relevant topics. The pictures shown are in line with the trip timeline however, they are not representative for the journey because I took more pictures in good weather and because the nature didn’t change much along the way.
Description of itinerary
I spent 2½ days biking the 310k north through farmland on the big and mostly uninteresting (but flattish) highway A1 to Port Augusta where I stocked up for 3 weeks as it was my last chance to buy food at reasonable prices for the following 1,900k. The highway continued SW and NW across the Eyre Peninsula through remote forest, farmland and desert-like scrub passing only a few small villages along the way. After 6½ days and 780k, I reached Ceduna where I topped up my food supplies. I would have bought a new tire to replace the exploded one but it was Sunday and the sports shop (no bike shop) was closed; I guessed they wouldn’t have the tire I needed anyway so I heading west instead of waiting until Monday morning. Ceduna is considered the beginning (or end if you come from the other side) of the Nullarbor desert crossing 1,200k to Norseman in Western Australia – Nullarbor means “no trees” though I would soon learn that there were few and fairly short treeless stretches along the way.
I remember my first long-distance bike trip in 2010 through the Baltic states, Finland and Sweden back to Denmark – here 100-200k on the same road seemed never-ending but with years and kilometres of experience I wasn’t concerned with the 1,200k desert crossing to Norseman – and it actually turned out to be quite an easy ride. In either end, there were some farmland but most of the way it was forest and scrub with colourful red/yellow sand/gravel – and no real desert as e.g. the Sahara. Most of it time the road was far from the ocean but the last 150k before the Western Australian (WA) border it came very close with a number of viewpoints of the Bunda Cliffs with its 100 meter drop that impressed most people though I found it fairly mediocre. People driving the stretch all seem to have the notion that it’s flat – long stretches were flat or with a small gradual incline/decline but there were also hundreds of kilometres with constant rolling hills with all combinations of long/short and more or less steep.
In Norseman, I wrote the shop who sold me the exploding tire as well as Koga – the Dutch manufacturer of my bike – to ask how they would honour their lifetime warranty on my (now broken) bike frame. I also picked up two parcels from Allan – one with food supplies and one with a new spare tire. From Norseman I rode 1,050k south to Esperance, west to Albany and northwest to Margaret River. Nature didn’t change much and most of the way I had to navigate constant rolling hills – I don’t mind climbing when it’s up a mountain where I get beautiful views but big, rolling hills for hundreds of kilometres through a forest without a single view is just boring exercise and it began draining my motivation. Until Norseman the wind had been equally allocated from all directions but almost all of this stretch I battled strong to fierce headwinds no matter what direction I went – bad timing and bad luck as it implied terrible knee agony with several sleepless nights.
In Margaret River, I had a great stay with Ray who’s building a new house where only the shell is done so I camped in the carport. Primitive conditions (as I like it) but nice to get a shower and do laundry for the first time in 4 weeks – long overdue and if not a personal record, it must be close. I did many practicalities and we went canoeing on the river but most interesting we had endless conversations on how to create a better world.
When I arrived in Australia in November 2014, I expected to cross the Nullarbor in January-February but quickly people got me convinced to procrastinate to avoid the 40-50C (104-122F) Summer temperatures. And it was definitely not too hot – on the contrary. Most days were 15-20C (59-68F) and most nights 0-5C (32-41F) – usually the sun would quickly increase the morning temperature but despite the sun some mornings were so cold (and foggy) I had to wear my jacket and gloves the first hours of riding. At this time of year, the days are so short I had to get the most out of them to get anywhere - getting up at dusk and going to bed just after dark. With around 1½ hour in both morning and evening camps, it left around 7 hours for riding including breaks. As I moved west dawn/dusk became later every day until I had to turn back time 1½ hour when I crossed the Western Australian border – not that it mattered as I still followed the daylight. Some people ride at night (though more in the Summer to avoid the heat) but that doesn’t appeal to me – most importantly it’s too dangerous but also there is nothing to see.
The first 11 days from Adelaide to about half way across the Nullarbor it was fifty-fifty sunny and overcast with a lot of rain (so much for a desert/drought – the locals called in “very unusual”). From there I had beautiful weather the following week until I rode into a storm halfway to Albany from where it was mostly overcast and rainy the rest of the way to Margaret River. I had gotten so used to no rain while setting up camp that I was caught unprepared one evening – half my equipment got wet and with no sun and low temperatures mornings and evenings it never dried before I reached Ray’s place some days later.
One of the key issues when crossing the Nullarbor is the wind – hills and road quality can influence the distance but nothing like the wind; my longest day was 160k and the shortest 80k (and this was more than a week after the longest distance when I was in better shape). Everybody has an opinion and most people seem inclined to believe the prevalent Nullarbor winds are from the west. As mentioned, it wasn’t my experience but then again my ride wasn’t representative. However, the reasoning I most often encountered I can dismiss as irrelevant – “it’s ½ hour faster flying west to east” - the planes fly at 10k in the jet stream that always travels west to east because of the planets rotation but has absolutely nothing to do with the winds we experience on the ground.
Anyway, I timed my departure from Adelaide for a strong tailwind most of the first 310k north to Port Augusta – really nice getting an easy start after almost 3 weeks of rest. From Port Augusta I was unlucky with the timing – when I rode SW and W to Kyancutta the wind was S/SW and when the road turned N/NW to Ceduna the wind turned N/NE; a little luckier I could have had a tailwind the whole way but fortunately the side/headwind was “only” 25-30 k/h. The following days 50 k/h headwinds limited my progress in the open landscape but from Nullarbor Roadhouse I was fortunate to get some days with 30-40 k/h tail/sidewind ensuring good progress. The rest of the way to Norseman the wind shifted around a lot and then came the challenging part from Norseman to Margaret River with headwind no matter what direction I was riding - bad timing or prevalent winds in each area – who knows?. Most days it was 20-40 k/h while the rest of the days were even windier.
The fierce winds came as part of a storm while I was riding towards Albany and lasted 3 days. The first day it didn’t matter much as I was giving my troubled knee a restday. The following day I was riding straight into 50-60 k/h winds heading SW to Jerramungup – incredibly tough on the rolling hills. I rode a meter in on the road and still the shifting winds pushed me off the road more than 20 times. And several times - when I got 3-5 minutes long gusts over 80 k/h - I had to pull off the road, face the wind, hold the breaks and brace myself over the handlebar not to be knocked over. Pretty crazy but then again it was a storm (also stressed by the fact that I didn’t see a single bird all day). The last 15k to Jerramungup took over 2 hours but I knew I “just” had to fight my way there as the road turned south providing a more manageable sidewind. Not that it was very much better - of course less strenuous but also more dangerous swerving along with the big trucks passing by and with a higher speed certainly more painful/damaging should I be pushed off the road. The last stormy day mainly offered a sidewind and it didn’t feel as strong as I was mostly in the forest.
Road quality and drivers
Everybody I had met in Australia had told me to look out for the road-trains on this stretch so it was a positive surprise when practically all vehicles went way around me when overtaking (until Norseman). At least they went way around when there was room – with oncoming traffic, the trucks honked which meant “get out of my way or I’ll run you over”. Fortunately, there wasn’t that much traffic so it happened less than 5 times a day. With the oversized road-trains (taking up 1½ lane or more) there was never any doubt getting off the road as they had a pilot car and sometimes even a police escort warning traffic ahead of the truck. Across the Nullarbor around 50% greeted me being people in caravans and other tourists while the truck drivers and locals hardly ever greeted me probably because they considered me a nuisance.
After Norseman things changed significantly. Now only 0-5 people greeted me every day – for me nothing had changed so the only explanation was that people considered the Nullarbor an achievement worth greeting. The vehicles no longer went wide around and more often two vehicles passed each other next to me – unless it was on purpose Australian drivers are very incompetent. With long straight stretches and full oversight it was very easy to adapt the speed to time the overtaking either before or after me. It wasn’t even necessary to break – just push or lift the foot from the accelerator. I think it has to do with the way people are taught to drive – the same hopeless “Learner System” as e.g. the USA where adults teach young people passing on all their bad habits. A handful of people found it funny to shout loudly to scare me when passing (didn’t work as I’ve been on the road too long to be bothered) and one guy threw a half full lunchbox at me while passing. Fortunately, he was an imbecile not considering our speed differences so it ended up in the ditch a bit ahead of me – no doubt he wanted to hit me and with a 0.5 kg box at 110 k/h it would have been painful and potentially dangerous had I fallen over on the road or in the ditch.
And talking about speed I’m still surprised it’s allowed to drive 110 k/h on the narrow, winding roads especially through forests where there is no overview. And especially dangerous for me when biking slowly up the rolling hills.
As mentioned countless times, I’m not impressed with the road quality in Australia. Riding this stretch I experienced countless different pavements and sometimes it changed 5 times within a kilometer. The best roads were the old worn, smooth roads while some of the worst were the newly paved roads with big loose stones not driven down, so I could feel every stone in my buttocks and hands. Even when the stones on the road were driven down, it was never the case in the shoulder - with tailwinds I could ride the road and pull off when I heard a vehicle approaching from behind, but riding into the wind I had to stay on the bad shoulder as I couldn’t hear anything with the wind howling in my ears (a mirror would have solved that problem). Often the roads were not repaired before adding new bitumen/stones hiding countless cracks/potholes so it was like riding a washing board.
It sounds pitiful but it turned out to be true. Early on I noticed that the lane heading west was generally worse than the one going east – when there was no traffic I even rode the other side many times to feel if I was right or just making this up. I first thought it had to do with the heavier trucks going west (to the mining areas) and the sun reaching my side of the road while the other side was more protected by trees. However, as it continued south after Norseman (where few truck go) I concluded it more likely was due to the run-off (heavy rains) being on my side of the road. Some of the most representative stretches were from Walpole to Nannup via Manjimup.
A thing to always look out for in Australia is broken glass. It seems to be a national sport amongst the many bogans to smash bottles everywhere even in the middle of nowhere. And always against metal structures e.g. signs and poles next to the road which was where I would lean the bike when having a break. Incredibly I didn’t have a flat tire besides the exploded tire incident.
Besides a few short-distance bicyclists in Tasmania, I’ve only met recreational bikers in Australia. On this stretch, I met 12-14 bikers of which everybody but one followed the conventional wisdom biking west to east (for the wind). Most of them only did the Nullarbor or a little extra on each side (e.g. from Perth to Adelaide or Melbourne) but Suzy and Dino had biked all the way from England and had many valuable hints for my trip across Asia.
I had been told there was a good chance of experiencing much wildlife along the way and I passed many signs to look out for wombats, dromedaries, kangaroos etc. However, I encountered very little - a couple of kangaroos and emus on my way out of Port Augusta as well as hundreds of kangaroos and about 20 eagles around Madura. Besides the ever present crows (and partly magpies) birdlife was fairly limited (e.g. colourful parrots and black cockatoos) considering the distance.
Logically I also encountered very limited roadkill, which was good especially as the weeks went by without a shower - I went wide around the roadkill to prevent the flies from leaving it for me. As mentioned, it was a somewhat cold ride but the upside was the very limited number of flies, mosquitoes and other bugs (also no snakes at this time of year). Flies are only active over 18C (65F) so they were mostly a nuisance at lunchbreaks (and far from every day) and mosquitoes I only encountered 3-4 evenings and not even that many. Consequently, I never got to use my mosquito net but I’m sure it will be useful when riding up towards Darwin where the temperatures are higher.
The whole stretch to from Adelaide to Margaret River is fairly desolate so there were few people to ask for camping advice and possibly stay with. The second night I stayed with some nice people from the Cook Islands and much later Ray in Margaret River. The rest of the time I wild camped just off the road or when possible in the forests a bit off the road. Especially the first week was difficult as all the farmland was fenced. When possible I went down sideroads to ask for camping advice but despite knocking on countless doors I never found anybody home. And since I don’t trespass I ended up camping just off the highway - not the most pleasant place to camp but an easy solution as in South Australia there’s always 10 meters to the fence on at least one side of the road (probably for potential expansion).
As part of my preparation for crossing the Nullarbor, I had read some stories by other bicyclists suggesting it was difficult to find camping spots. I’m not sure what expectations they had for wild camping but I found it very easy. All I needed was a tree to hang my food in and, if possible, some bushes to take cover behind when it was very windy. Only a few little longer stretches were treeless and never more than 40-50k – normally it would be no more than 5-10k to maybe not a forest but at least a group of trees that would do for camping.
Food, water and people
In Port Augusta, I stocked up 25 kg of food to last 1,900k to Esperance, as there was only a few (expensive) options in between to top up with bread, oatmeal, etc. Riding the desert ironically, almost all my meals were “add water” like oatmeal, pasta and mashed potato powder. The heavier items like pasta with diced tomatoes were doable to carry a couple of days after buying it while mashed potato powder was my dinner everywhere else.
Besides the wind and carrying enough food, water is the challenge when crossing the Nullarbor on a bicycle. There is no water between the few small towns, villages and roadhouses most often 100-200k apart. The bore water on the Nullarbor is salty in different concentrations – while it doesn’t taste fantastic the not too salty water is drinkable but the brackish water is too salty to be healthy (like the ocean). In the small towns it was easy to find someone who could spare water but the roadhouses are businesses and water costs out there whether transported in bottles (AUD 10 for 10 liters) or desalinated (93 cents per liter).
“Roughing it” I didn’t intend to pay for water like I never pay for accommodation – not to save money but as part of the challenge. My strategy was to stock up as much water as possible whenever I had the chance and then ask a little water of everybody I met as most people (on request) could spare a few liters including the roadhouses. Also I kept the brackish water separated from the drinking water using it for cleaning and washing. And though I never experienced a water shortage it did imply that I more often carried 15-20 liters. With my food supplies, the bike was around 100 kg despite having left everything but the essentials in Adelaide.
Countless people had told me of the friendly caravan people who would offer their help but I really can’t confirm that experience as it only happened 3 times. One was 20k from Norseman making it irrelevant. About half way across the desert a guy asked if I needed anything and when I said I could always use some water he didn’t have any. The only great experience was Barry and Heather pulling their caravan off the road and inviting me in for coffee and biscuits while giving me advice about the Nullarbor – they also promised to leave a present at a certain road marker (a week further ahead) which turned out to be water, a sports drink, canned peaches and some canned food. A rare experience in Australia of which I’m eternally grateful.
When my tire exploded Saturday afternoon, I tried ½ hour to hitch a ride to Ceduna to get to the bike shop as I was sure it wouldn’t be open Sunday when I would get there if riding. Only one caravan stopped and they couldn't (wouldn't) take me - no room!? So I ended up heading out to face my fate. Halfway across the Nullarbor, I met 3 young tourists who had broken down in their car and the mechanic hadn’t showed up after 40 hours so they had to ditch the car and hitchhike. So much for people helping you out when in need.
The 10kg I had gained in Adelaide was long gone so I had hoped to gain some weight while staying with Ray in Margaret River. However, he only had a single gas cooker so my diet hardly changed – only the chocolate and nuts might have added some kg but far from what I had hoped for.
Health and equipment
I’ve been so unfortunate on this stretch that if I didn’t know better I would think somebody/something wanted me to give up my trip. Even though it was a fairly long stretch the number of broken things is unprecedented for my bicycling (or any of my travelling for that matter).
First about health and my body. Fairly early on this leg I got sore buttocks – it happens every time I begin after a long break but always disappears again after a while so I didn’t take much notice. However, after 10 days I got a pressure sore on my right buttock, which I’ve never experienced before. It could be my bike shorts as I’ve never done many consecutive long days of riding in this particular model. I changed to my spare shorts hoping they would sit a little different but it kept getting worse so I concluded it was my broken saddle. It’s been broken since I rode from California to Alaska in May 2014 but slipping a piece of old tire underneath the saddle had done the trick until now. I had put a “new” piece of tire under the saddle when I left Adelaide but the saddle was almost broken in half (bottom up but not where I sit) so the tire might not be enough anymore - still I put in a “new” piece of tire under the saddle and it seemed to help a bit. I expected a normal bandage to do more damage than good (to the skin around the sore) so I put on a Compeed, which is a hydrocolloid gel plaster for treating blisters, etc. It helped ease the terrible pain (imagine riding with a 1cm*3 cm open and somewhat deep sore on the buttock for 7 hours a day) but as with blisters in trekking boots it’s difficult to keep it in the right place when the gel gets warm. Changing the Compeed every 1-2 days it took over a week before the worst was over – very unpleasant but I didn’t feel like sitting around in a forest for 4-5 days waiting for it to heal.
While still struggling with the sore buttocks I got a terrible knee pain – it happens regularly that my bad knee is sore when I sleep because the tent is too small to find a good position but never to this extent where I experienced several sleepless nights in constant agony. My kid soccer coach always said injuries are healed by exercised and as it has been the case with previous knee pain, it seems to be true as biking was actually the least painful time for me. It would have been pitiful to watch me hardly managing to get in/out of the tent and limp around camp but after 5-10 minutes of biking I didn’t feel much pain until I made stops. After a couple of days, I took a restday which helped, but the setback was imminent as I the following days rode straight into a storm navigating endless rolling hills. After that, I could feel a tension/small pain every day but fortunately, it never got as bad as the two initial days.
I also had a number of more of less serious bike-related problems. My new rear tire exploded after only 650k, so I had to use my spare tire before I even began the 1,200k Nullarbor desert crossing. Normally, the rear tire does minimum 6,000k so of course it was a concern if the problem was the rim in which case my spare tire would explode in the middle of the desert. I didn’t feel comfortable riding 1,200k across a desolate desert without a spare tire but the sport shop in Ceduna was closed on this Sunday. And since I didn’t expect them to stock the tire I needed, I decided to take the chance and head out - though I did ask Allan to buy a new one in Adelaide and send it poste restante to Norseman. Later I returned the tire to the shop in Moruya and I got a replacement tire, which was nice though it didn’t save me much taking the postal fees into consideration.
After 2 weeks my bike frame broke in the desert with 400k to Norseman – fortunately I managed to patch the bike up with gorilla tape and cable ties, which surprisingly held the remaining 1,500k to Perth. I can come up with a 100 guesses of why the frame broke but the bike has endured much worse conditions previously (e.g. bad road quality) so the only explanation is metal fatigue, which means it could have happened anywhere and anytime. There is a lifetime warranty on the frame so in Norseman I wrote the Dutch manufacturer Koga to ask how they would honour the guarantee for a customer on the other side of the planet. When I reached Margaret River 2 weeks later I still hadn’t heard from them so I wrote a reminder only to receive an acknowledgement (of the problem but not their responsibility) a week later - now much less confident they cared at all.
Other equipment challenges included:
- My gears didn’t shift properly – changing to a bigger front cog I had to push the shifter twice and changing to a lower rear gear I often had to push 2 up and one down. And though it didn’t work well I didn’t want to mess around with it risking it would stop working at all
- My odometer stopped working but when I discovered it was a broken cable I could fix with my cable pliers and tape – later Ray soldered it for me
- I had a loose connection in my headlamp so I had to bend the cord in a certain way to make it work – a lot of “fun” every evening especially reading for hours. My spare lamp - that I’ve carried for a long time always working - of course didn’t work now that I needed it! Later Ray soldered the headlamp
- Broken strap on one of the panniers
- Two holes in my long bike pants. One was when the tire exploded and a bungie ripped them getting everything off the bike in a hurry - it doesn't bother me much as it's in the middle of the more sturdy material. The other hole is worse as it is the seam - it was later fixed in Perth but I feel uncertain if they’ll make to Darwin. Hopefully it gets warmer so I don’t have to use them much
- Broken zipper in my fleece making it necessary to wear my jacket on the many cold mornings
- Broken zipper on my warm underwear making it impossible to keep my neck warm – fortunately I have a spare one
- My non-waterproof old sneakers were close to falling completely apart after all the rain especially in the Central Tasmanian Highlands where they were wet for weeks. Ray has a similar mindset to me so he of course had shoe glue to fix them
- Broken and lost bungie cords
What worked out very well were my two new possessions – the 10 liters water bladder and the windscreen for my cooker without which there would have been many times when it would have been impossible to heat water.