Rolling out of Finke community I spotted a few dogs from the corner of my eyes running headlong towards me. An echo of barking rang out, I realized there must have been more than five of them. For the dogs it was just sport and probably part of their daily entertainment, for me it felt like life or death. Getting my fully laden Surly ECR up to speed to outrun the angry mob was quite a feat but somehow I pulled it off. As we approached the cattle grid on the edge of town I thought I might just outrun them, it was not the case, the ringleaders gave chase a further 200 meters before giving up.
It was only day two of my expedition along The Old Ghan route and already it had thrown up many trials and tribulations. The lactic acid pumping through my legs was insane and I took it easy for the next few hours as I pedalled into the setting sun.
The idea for this trip had come about long ago yet I had not yet found the time to make it happen. In someways this was a blessing, technology in electrical devices and bicycles had come along way in the decade since the ideas inception. GPS navigation and tracking, lightweight camping gear, dynamo hub technology and new wheel standards for bikes all conspired to make this adventure so much more than the original dream could have ever been.
The Old Ghan is rich with Australian pioneering history as well as significant points of natural beauty. Whilst the original intention was to skirt the Simpson via the Stuart highway and join The Ghan route at Finke, the new 29+ category from Surly got me thinking about the possibilities of tackling the sandy track that runs parallel to the Finke desert race. Could this bike allow me to traverse the edge of deserts and salt lakes on its trip south through inhospitable country?
I never did have a chance to test the ECR’s sand grinding capabilities before rolling out of Alice Springs so I planned accordingly. At worst I would have to push for 120 km from Maryvale to Finke where the sand is at its deepest. I was also leaving two weeks after the famous Finke desert race so figured the road would be pretty chewd up. The bike was laden with 10 freeze dried meals, enough sweets and chocolate to give most couch potatoes instant diabetes and 10 liters of water. All up I guessed it weighed about 45-50kg.
Pre dawn on a Sunday I snuck out of the still sleeping town of Alice Springs, skirted around the airport and hit the dirt. I paused briefly to take a blurry photo of the road ahead. It would be 1100km until i would feel tarmac under my wheels again.
Twenty kilometers later drifting hot air balloons became my last reference point of being close to settlements. I was edging closer towards the desert and it was exciting.
The road out of Alice was pretty easy going with occasional sand drifts and corrugations. I made good progress that morning making Maryvale turn off 100km down the road for a late lunch around 1pm.
The road split at Maryvale (Titktuka community) and got progressively worse as the afternoon dragged on. The Surly ECR was settling into its environment and I was beginning to feel the adventure unfold. I hadn’t experimented with tyre pressure much since building the bike up so decided the sand was getting deep enough to warrant dropping some air out of the tyres. I deflated them to around 12 PSI, perhaps a little soft for the load I had however it dug in deep and allowed me to keep pedaling through the deepest ruts and I also managed to stay upright which is always a bonus in the middle of nowhere on your own!
By the end of the first day I had managed 160km on some pretty challenging roads and went to bed feeling content with my efforts.
The next morning I got up 40 minutes before dawn and pushed out into the sandy track ahead. I still had 80km to Finke and was unsure how unrelenting the sand ahead would be. It was rideable with the big bags underneath me but I was switching between first and second gear and my overall average was around 8km/h. I wasn’t having to get off and push but it required all my strength to keep the bike straight and upright.
I often find when I am deep in these challenging circumstances that the maths of the situation pour over me. How far is it? How long will that take at the current trajectory? What time will I reach point B? I had one goal in mind on day two, that was to reach the general store at Finke for a few supplies and to refill my dwindling water reserves. The early morning maths were not looking good. At 9am travelling my current speed I was still eight and a half hours from Finke and concerned the store might be closed by then. This was compounded by the fact that Atapulta(Finke) is an aboriginal community where you have to be invited to stay the night. This meant staying short of Finke and rolling in the next morning, not ideal, so I continued to push on.
I had been gifted a tail wind all morning of which I was unaware of due to the poor road conditions. Around 2pm the road got substantially better and the tail wind guided me towards Finke at a great rate of knots. By 3pm I was happily sucking down on a $4 Calippo ice block, guzzling Gatorades and planning my next round of snacks and beverages! In less than an hour I had spent more than $40 on overpriced junk food but I was a very happy man.
I woke early again on day three and was beginning to get that familiar feeling of settling into my environment that one gets on a big journey. I pedaled off from my campsite pre-dawn and marveled at the rising sun and the long shadows across the road ahead. There were still pockets of sand but the road was getting better, the feeling was that a good day was beginning to unfold.
Well that’s at least what I thought. I turned off towards Eringa water hole and Hamilton station around 9am and was greeted with a gentle puff of wind in may face. Thoughts quickly raced about my head, I was well aware from the high cloud above that I was in for some pretty substantial headwinds. By 10 the winds had reached peak intensity where the stayed for most of the day. The next hour I made only seven lousy kilometers.
I love how these photos look so tranquil. This was not how it felt at the time but looking back on these pictures I feel an inner peace.
I hid behind this tanker pleading for the wind to relent but I knew it was futile. Maximum wind gusts that day were 67km/h in my face and looking at the 9am/3pm recording from Oodnadatta that wasn’t much above the days average.
Regardless of my less than fortunate situation I pushed on into the vast Gibber plains. The size of the landscapes here is overwhelming and was great to witness the subtle changes in the landscape as I pushed on.
My one sweet relief for the day was the water hole at Eringa where I took time to relax and have a swim and a lie down. It was hard to believe earlier in morning that this desert oasis would present its self. I slammed down a few very strong coffees and refueled on some croissants and Nutella.
After Eringa I felt refreshed. I pushed on determined not to let the wind beat me. As the afternoon was drawing to a close the wind subsided so I made the decision to push onto Hamilton homestead where there were campground facilities. It was really nice riding away from the setting sun with only the road ahead. I was feeling the fatigue of three days of hard riding. Occasional sheltered areas of trees made me second guess my motives to want to push on!
It was after 8:30pm by the time a reached Hamilton and I felt a little shy about rocking up on my bike half way into the night, as if I would be instantly pidgeon holed as a nutter on a bike. Turns out I’m not the first nutter on a bike, the station owner hardly batted an eyelid!
I rolled onto the campground and made myself at home in one of the picnic shelters. A couple from Queensland (Geoff and Leanne) were staying next to me. They had the whole set up with camper trailers fridges solar panels and even a 12V vacuum for cleaning out the van! Geoff was very quick to offer me a beer and I was very quick to warn him that given my thirst it may not last too long so please don’t be offended! He promptly handed me two beers and told me this way I would have one for later! Needless to say I didn’t complain. We chatted for a while over dinner and it turned out Geoff was quite keen cyclist until quite recently, he had done a lot of Audax rides in Queensland in the 80s and 90s. These days he said it was getting harder to ride long distances, he had recently caved and bought an electric bike.
I decided to just roll out my mattress on the over-sized picnic tables to ease pack up in the morning. I was expecting another windy day so wanted to get away early to beat the wind.
I didn’t take many photo’s that day, the wind came up pretty early and was made a little harder by the rolling dune country I was in. For a few hours I pedaled up over dunes then almost came to a standstill as the winds buffeted me. Then I rolled down them at very slow speeds!
By far the biggest highlight of the day was the enormous Sturt’s desert pea i came across on the side of the road. The 4 wheel drivers screaming past at 80 km/h, they didn’t know what they were missing! Being able to take in the desert at 12 km/h was magical and made forgetting the headwinds pretty easy sometimes.
By mid afternoon I was getting close to Oodnadatta and was looking forward to a break. It was hard to believe I had been on the road for only four days. It felt closer to a week. I was ready for a hot shower and a hot meal that didn’t just require pouring boiling water into a packet. One of the last obstacles before I reached the Oodnadatta track was Fogertys Claypan, seven kilometers across. Its bed was made of soft dusty clay that sucked the power from my legs. Coupled with the ever present headwind it took me almost an hour to cross this desolate waste land.
Making Oodnadatta was a big milestone but rather anti-climactic. There was no one to greet me no friends to cheer me on, I had made it but I was now even further from anywhere than when I started and I was pretty sure I had just reached the centre of the middle of nowhere.