Stuart Highway, part 1

21.3.2015

My flight from Singapore to Darwin landed 5:10AM. I dragged the bike box and panniers out from the airport and started to put together my bike. It was still dark, but the weather was already hot and humid.

About 200 nights I stayed in my tent last year was enough to break my tent poles and stuck the zipper of my tent’s door. When the sun rose I rode to the center of Darwin to buy new parts for my tent. Temperature increased faster than anywhere else before, but at the first glance people seemed to be colder than in Asia. Commuting cyclists didn’t respond to my greetings. Everyone seemed to be busy making money. South East Asia’s cheap food was just a distant memory anymore. Restaurants advertised their 30 dollar meals. The city was full of all kind of prohibition signs and childish fine threats. I hold back hunger and cycled 20 kilometers to Palmerston where I was going to stay the first night on the Couchsurfing sofa. During the 20 kilometers the weather changed completely two times. The strongest storm I ever had seen hit Darwin. Roads were flooding and it was thundering like never before. I didn’t need to pedal much, because the wind pushed me to Palmerston. Then clouds disappeared and it was sunny again. I sat down on the grass in front of my host’s house to wait him. Old Jewish man walking on the street came to talk to me. He said, “Australians are good people”, as if he had heard what I was thinking after bad first impressions. He promised to drop Bible into the mailbox for next day, because “you will need it on your journey”, he said.

Bike path in Darwin

Bike path in Darwin

I had made as little research about Australia as I usually did when arriving to new countries. My plan was to cycle across the country from north to south through legendary Stuart Highway from Darwin to Adelaide and then find a job. A piece of cake I thought! Even the map made it look like it was going to be downhill only. Extremely high temperatures and the storm made me however think again what I was going to do. In the evening I read Jukka Salminen‘s stories from Australia to know what to expect from outback Australia. He cycled the same route ten years back. The more I read the more challenging the trip started to seem. Only Northern Territory is more than four times bigger than my homeland Finland, but population is just 215 000 and half them live in Darwin. So I was going to have long desert rides on one of the hottest areas on the earth, where wet season temperatures can be more than +40 celsius degrees and where tropical cyclones are typical. In 1974 Cyclone Tracy killed 71 people and destroyed most of the buildings in Darwin. When I arrived Australia in January, the six months long wet season was the hottest and the wettest. The biggest challenge for me was that now I was alone. Lauri flew from Singapore to Brisbane to work. Now there was no one helping if something happened on the road.

I decided to leave Darwin next evening after the sun had gone done and temperature was just +33C. The bible didn’t appear into the mailbox before I left, although higher forces would have been needed. Anyway there was ten extra kilos on my bike even without the bible, because of water and food. I had assembled my bike too hastily at the airport. The front lamp pointed in the wrong direction and before I stopped to adjust it I was already lost on muddy little road where I had to cross similar water obstacles we crossed near St. Petersburg in the beginning of our journey. This time it wasn’t snowing, but the fact that Darwin is full of crocodiles, dangerous snakes and spiders didn’t make me feel any better. When I get back to the Stuart Highway I saw the first roadtrain, truck with four trailers. Soon I learnt I had to stop cycling every time they passed me. Luckily there was very few traffic. After Palmerston all the civilization ended. Frogs were jumping on the road and I saw couple of wallabies in the bush. I didn’t see any cars for hours. The sky was flashing because of distant lightning storms.

Katherine Gorge national park, 30km north from Katherine

Katherine Gorge national park, 30km north from Katherine

After three night rides I arrived Katherine, which was the biggest town for next 1000 kilometers with its population of 6 000. I was tired and still confused because of the change from eastern culture into the western world. People were driving pickup trucks. Men had long gray beards and cowboy hats made of rabbit fur. By the river there were crocodile warning signs. Huge cloud of fruit bats was flying in the sky. Indigenous Australian were hanging out everywhere. The town was like from old movie. I paid 20 dollars to stay a night and have a shower at the caravan park. They said usually the price was 35 dollars for one tent on unpowered site. I guess because I looked so weary I got discount even without asking. The price was still way too much for me. Next day I asked if I could stay five more days for 50 dollars, but it wasn’t enough for them, even though I was the only one there with a tent. Next night I found a place to sleep from sports stadium. A few aboriginals also came to sleep there and together we were hiding from night patrols, because there was a risk getting 100 dollar fine because of public camping. The spot was too hectic for me. Next day I found a better spot from old airstrip two kilometers from the center. Opposite the airstrip there was a graveyard where I used to fill my water bottles every morning and evening during two weeks I stayed in Katherine. I had a bath at the hot springs or public toilets. It was everyday about 40 degrees. I escaped the heat to the library or cafes. That’s how I rested for two weeks. I didn’t want to leave the town until I was sure I was strong enough.

vesiputous

I continued to cycle at the night time only. I usually started 6pm and finished at the midnight. Sun forced me to wake up early. Then I set up my hammock and relaxed in the shade until sunset. After a long time, cycling was very easy. I rode more or less 100 kilometers a night to reach next gas station to get water. One night white small car overtook me and then made a U-turn. Young restless guy parked his car over the reflector post and stepped out of the car. In the backseat there was a little baby crying. He told they were escaping the baby’s crazy mother, but they didn’t have money for gas. He asked if I wanted to join them and pay the gas. I wanted to keep pedaling and anyway the car was too small for my bike. The man seemed to be very threatening. I gave him my next day’s budget to make sure he didn’t have to try to rob me. He was very grateful and wrote me an address to Alice Springs where I could stay. Everything wasn’t alright with them. I was thinking about calling to child protection or police, but in the desert there wasn’t this kind of services available and there even wasn’t network coverage.

Stuart Highway is named after Scottish explorer John McDouall Stuart, who was the first european that traveled across the Australia from south the north in 1861. Nowadays the highway goes near the route Stuart used. By the road there’s many legendary pubs of which Daly Waters Pub is the oldest. I had a day off there. The owners told me this time of the year there lives only five people and the pub’s employees in the Daly Waters village. One even smaller village was Larrimah, where wasn’t gas station. A woman who had lived there more than 30 years with her dogs sold me a meat pie in the morning and said I could knock her door in the afternoon to get more before I’d leave. Later I knocked her door, but she was waiting for an important call, for her satellite phone I guess, because there was no coverage once again, so she didn’t want to miss the call and therefore she couldn’t sell me any food. It wasn’t a problem, I had two kilos of rice and I got some water from rainwater tank. Water always tasted worse than in pools and was usually as hot as the air.

Last 70 kilometers before Tennant Creek I cycled daytime because night before I finished my ride to the place where I couldn’t find any water. I slept very badly because the tent pole and the zipper of my tent got broken again and I just couldn’t close the zipper of my tent’s door. I removed the broken tent pole next to the door and closed the door by putting my shoes on the tent cloth. It didn’t really help because the tent was already full of hungry desert mosquitos and because there was no tent pole, the tent was lying on me and mosquitos were biting me through the fabric all night. While cycling daytime I finally could saw the landscapes. It wasn’t tropic anymore. There were only few trees and dry red sand.

leiritennantcreek

In Tennant Creek I got a warm welcome. I immediately met a super friendly Irish-German couple who invited me to have a shower and a good night’s sleep in their motel room, at the motel where they worked. Tennant Creek is an old remote gold mining town, where everyone seems to know each other. Here is one grocery, one barbershop and one ranger. One third of the people are indigenous. I had a great opportunity to learn about aboriginal culture when one of them arrived to my camp one night I was free camping near the town. She decided to stay the night under my hammock. She told me about smoking the baby ritual which purpose is to make the baby and the mother strong. They have had hundreds of different languages and if you happen to meet those who still live in the most isolated areas you should instantly go down and rub the soil all over your body to make yourself look dirty. Then they wont hurt you, she said. Sadly many of them are alcoholics.

Unlike my first plan was to cycle to Adelaide and start to work there, I got a job from Tennant Creek and now I’m going to stay here until May. In May two British cyclists who are on their around the world trip should pass Tennant Creek and my new plan is to cycle down to the south coast with them. They have been cycling for one and half year now and they have already pedaled more than 25 000 kilometers! While I’m saving money for next adventures, check out their amazing blog at WowCharityCycle.wordpress.com

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