The End of the Beginning

the end of the beginning

The exit from Melbourne was a nice one. The road was flat with a bike path for most of the way. I left three days earlier than Matt, who resided in penthouse luxury whilst I made my way to the finish line in Sydney. The reason for my early departure from the cool cafe culture of Melbourne was pedalling her Rockhopper arduously behind Colin and me.

Mum had decided to join us on our final 1000 miles. She prepared her body for the stiff physical challenge in much the same way as Matt and I had in the lead-up to our adventure; by eating a lot but not actually riding very much. Also, to make sure she was properly tested, she damaged her knee back in June.

Despite her dodgy knee and lack of bike fitness we covered 50 miles on our first day, I felt very proud of Mum.

I was even more proud that she’d purchased an inexpensive tent and we would spend the night under the stars on Philip Island. Only, there were no stars, just thick cloud covering the night sky. At 5am a thunder bolt tore through the quiet and woke me up.

‘Mum, are you awake?’

‘mhuh’ came her weary reply

‘We should get up because I think it’s going to rain and your tent won’t like that!’

No sooner had we forced our tired bodies from out of our comfortable cocoons than the deluge began. My tent, my home for 15 months, had never let me down, even surviving a 3am dousing from a covert automatic sprinkler. But Mum’s $30 special wasn’t quite so sturdy and the outer layers proved to be as waterproof as a tea bag. The soaking put mum off the camping experience and meant she would only camp if she could share my tent (34 years old and still living with my Mum!).

Most Aussies we met took pity upon my mother often chastising me for making her cycle all that way. “Look at your poor Mum!” they’d cry in accusatory tones, as if I’d held a gun to her head and made her come along. Their pity often resulted in a cooked meal, shower and a bed for the night.

At a campsite in Wodthaggi we met Rob Eustace, a keen sportsman, cyclist and all-round nice bloke. He was eager to meet us again in his home town of Sale, 200km down the road and offered us a room for the night.

Wetlands at Sale

The reward of a comfy bed spurred us on but the further we travelled  the more tricky travel by bike became. The roads east of Melbourne were narrow, without a hard shoulder for us to ride along. When we heard of an old railway line that had been converted into a path that we could use for a few 100 kilometres we leapt at the chance to escape the tarmac and headwinds.

We found the path at a small town, Buffalo. It lay sheltered in a gully surrounded by trees. Along the way we got to admire some more of the antipodean wildlife including echidnas, black cockatoos and a bush python. It was a brief highlight on an otherwise tough ride.

Riding the railtrail

As we came nearer to Sale we took time to stop and enjoy the scenery of the wetlands in the golden glow of the setting sun. This reinvigorated my spirit that had been drained by the continually undulating roads and constant headwinds. It would have taken a bit more than a pretty picture to ease Mum’s suffering; the pressure on the soles of her feet from pedalling her bike was causing her enormous amounts of discomfort and she had to stop every couple of miles to walk and ease the pain.

With one last push we made it into the small town of Sale where, as promised, Rob came to collect us from the fried chicken takeaway where we’d refilled our empty bellies. We were spoilt for choice of accommodation in Sale and after one night with Rob, his wife, Michelle and their daughter, Lilly, we moved on to our pre-arranged warmshowers.org hosts, the Bodeys. Here we were taken to meet the local cycle group and treated to a night of Australian poetry. John and Trish were more than a little disappointed with my own poetic efforts, I’m not sure why, I thought everyone loved The Wu Tang Clan.

A couple of days rest did wonders for Mum’s morale and we set off early from Bodey’s place to meet Rob who’d offered to escort us on our way to Bairnsdale.

It was a great day for cycling; warm with tailwinds to carry us along the C106. Even better than the healthy push from mother nature was bumping into two other keen riders, Ian and Michelle. Michelle knew John and Trish and kindly offered to put us up at her place in Bairnsdale.

Michelle and Ian took us to Lakes Entrance and Metung, coastal towns houses upon the shore. The view was enhanced by the setting sun, it’s red hues painting the white tree trunks pink. Lakes Entrance was a beautiful place and deserved more exploration but deadlines pressed and so we left after one night and got back upon the rail trail.

We followed the trail through some quaint towns until Orbost where Matt caught-up with us. Having him along meant I was being tag-teamed; Mum sharing all the embarrassing tales from my youth with Matt, who’d then promptly share them on Facebook. Awesome.

Just out of Orbost we saw our first sign for the finish line, it read “Sydney 659Km”. Only 659Km between me and a reality I wasn’t sure I was ready to face. It was a corporeal nail in the coffin of The Cycle Diaries. Until then  I’d only had my imaginings of the finish, but here was a solid metal reminder that the end was near. At least it meant only another week of taunting from M&M.

I realised that there were some things I wouldn’t miss; truck drivers who would not give us any room whatsoever. They clung to the white line along the edge of the highway leaving us a foot of tarmac to ride along. We were 25km from Cann River and a truck carrying logs sped past nearly knocking all of us over, it tickled the edge of my guitar bag as it went, another 2 inches to the left and I’d have been 2-dimensional.

After that close call we were able to push on, thanks to a healthy dash of adrenaline. Eventually the sinusoidal hills wore us down and sleep beckoned but we were out of luck. Between Orbost and Eden there are few towns and the area is covered in parkland. The air is clean and the trees are majestic but the woodland in crowded by bush and fenced off. Eventually we found an abandoned farmhouse along the side of the road. It was for sale and the lawn was neatly manicured, I thought it’d make a nice bed. The house had been abandoned for some time and was in a state of disrepair. As the wind began to rise the house began to creak with discontent at the weather. I can’t say we were too pleased with it either; from being 30C the temperature had suddenly dropped and we were all feeling the bite of the cold evening. We set-up out tents rapidly and piled inside to begin dinner when we heard a ‘hello’ from the cow pasture next to the lawn. Dan, a local farmer, was checking on his beef herd when he’d caught sight of us. He was a friendly chap and invited us for breakfast and a shower at his place, 3km away, the next morning.

The night proved sleepless, besides having to share a confined space with my Mum, the noise of possums and curious cattle had kept us awake. Before we knew it, it was 8am. Mum and I hurried out onto the road. Matt stayed sheltered in his tent to eat while we went without breakfast to try to catch Dan before he left for work. As we packed the tent a storm settled and began pelting us with blobs of icy rain.

We peddled hard to make it to Dan’s. Despite the ride only being 3Km we got absolutely drenched and were disheartened to find his ute pulling out of his drive as we rode up. He stopped and we exchanged pleasantries before Dan told us he was off and couldn’t help us. Mum asked him if we could use his barn for shelter until the heavy rain passed, “Sure, in fact you can use my house, it’s unlocked, warm yourselves up by the fire and help yourselves to breakfast”. This guy had known us all of 20 minutes and was allowing us to use his home, without supervision, amazing!

Australians are some of the most hospitable people we’ve met on the road, they love a good story over a few beers. Between Cann River and Nowra we had comfy lawns, food and breakfast wherever we asked to camp. Mother had overcome her shyness and became accustomed asking people for permission to camp on their land. She did, however, retain an extraordinary level of etiquette. It became known as Etiquette Aikido – using an opponents manners against them.

In Nowra we stayed with Geoff and Cathy Cochrane, Illawara farmers and friends with Mum and Dad. Geoff, a bushman that reminded me of Abraham Lincoln, loved the land. It was entertaining and scary to see him remove his hands from the steering wheel of his ute (the floor strewn with .22 calibre bullets) and his eyes from the road to point out a tiny bird he’d caught a glimpse of. “Can you see it?” he’d ask, pointing over to a clump of tall gum trees “Yes Geoff” we’d reply slightly unnerved by his wavering road awareness. “It’s there right between those trees, on that post” still admiring the bird “Yes, Geoff! We see it, please look at the bloody road!”

Kangaroo Valley

He spent time taking us around the Pyree and Nowra area including the stunning Kangaroo Valley where he grew-up. There we were privileged to hear a Lyrebird reel off a repertoire of 12 bird calls.

We were only a couple of hundred kilometres from Sydney but the ride from Cochrane’s to our penultimate stop took longer than we thought and was far more hilly than we’d have liked. On our way we rode along Woolangong’s stunning sandstone coast before arriving at the home of our our host, Kieran, high above the Tasman Sea on the wooded hillside of Stanwell. Mum was spent and had to walk the last few miles, only hopping on her bike to enjoy the brief downhills.

After a night of conversation and BBQ’d delights, Kieran guided us down Lady Carrington Drive to Sydney, a mountain bike track. Kieran and two of his guests shot on ahead of us on their mountain bikes while we cautiously rode over the rocks and bumps. Despite my caution I still broke 3 spokes along the track.

Our fellow riders turned back at the outskirts of Sydney’s suburbs while I rode ahead of Matt and Mum singing out load into the wind or lost in thought. As I crossed George’s River into Sydney what we’d done began to sink in and I shouted out “Bloody hell! We’ve only gone and bloody done it!” Part of me still couldn’t believe it. Another, less jubilant part was sad. The last 16 months we’d achieved more than we ever thought we were capable. We were tested mentally and physically and always seemed to muddle through, more than that, we’d excelled our own expectations, proved the naysayers wrong (there were a few doubters!)

Leaving M&M to head to their Warmshowers.org host, I headed to the airport to collect my long suffering girlfriend, Nicola. It was great to see her, though there was some trepidation upon our first meeting in 6 months. This had been the ultimate test of our relationship and it had been tough, but we had passed and are still going strong.

After catching-up with Nix it was time to head to the centre of town, to Mrs Macquarie’s Chair, the official finishing line of a journey that started 16 months before. As Matt and I ponderously made our way to the harbour I kept asking myself “how can I return to my old life? What will I do?” I still don’t have answers to those questions. Fortunately the sight of the small welcoming committee and a dousing in some cheap fizzy wine cut short the inner dialogue and we could begin to celebrate.

the end of the beginning

One week later, I was on a flight home to spend Christmas with my family. I was sad that it was over and already missing the sense of adventure that greeted each new day as we unzipped our tents and ventured into the unknown. It’s not all doom though, I am proud of our achievement, of raising £27’000 for War Child I am also filled with hope for the future, that having completed this I have shown I’m capable succeeding in a difficult challenge.

As you know Matt had the opportunity to continue along the road and cram in even more amazing adventures before he returns. It’s an opportunity I’m please to say he has taken. Lucky bastard.

Cheers for all of your support along the way, your messages, Facebook pokes and tweets made the hard times more bearable.

Andy x

Ps.A lot of people thought that we were crazy for taking this challenge on. I’d like to tell them that little bit of crazy is sometimes a great thing

 

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