- "It's lonely without a friend to share the road."
- -- Doug Armstrong
- Australia captivates everyone's imagination. Oz, its
nickname, is a land filled with exotic creatures that defy description.
Nine tenths of Australia is desert. It's an ancient continent with most
of its mountains flattened by millions of years of erosion. Along its
coasts, breathtaking beauty abounds in a variety of temperate zones from
rain forests, to 7,000-foot mountains in the Snowy River Range of Victoria.
Legends have it that British convicts populate Oz.
- Nothing could be further from the truth. Aussies
are some of the kindest people on the face of the earth. They possess
a dry sense of humor that keeps life in perspective. "No worries
me mate," is their answer to problems that are trivial and not worth
an anxiety attack. Riding a bicycle in Oz is an experience in friendliness.
- A mate invited me to a party in Sydney on a Saturday
afternoon a week prior to my departure on my trans-Australia -crossing.
A group of Aussies were singing, joking and getting pissed (drunk). They
sang about the hard times in Oz, and a collection of other ribald lyrics
about wine, women and the Outback. At one of the high points of the party,
they sang Yankee songs in my honor. Their best one was, "I'm an
old cow hand, from the Rio Grande." After singing a few stanzas,
a chap -named Richard asked me what a Yank might be doing in Australia.
- "I'm going to ride my push-bike across your country,"
- "You're gonna' do what?" Richard asked again.
- "Ride my push-bike to Perth."
- "Do you know how far that is?"
- "Oh yeah," I said. "Over 3,000 kilometers."
- "Did you know that you're going across the Nullabor
- "Yes, I saw it on the map,"
- "Do you know what Nullabor means in Aborigine?"
- "No, what?"
- "It means 'treeless,'" he said after swigging
on a Foster's beer. "There ain't a tree for 2,500 kilometers, and
it's 38-degrees (app. 115 Fahrenheit) at this time of year. It's nothin'
but a bloody desert. You'll cook like an egg in a fryin' pan."
- "It'll be a great adventure," I said.
- "You know what mate?" he said. "I reckon
you're dead from the neck up!"
- Richard was right about the Nullabor. The highway shot
straight toward the horizon, bisecting the land into two equal -halves
of nothing but desert. When I hit Ceduna "The Gateway To The Nullabor
Plains," three signs warned travelers of animals to watch out for--wombats,
camels and kangaroos. They might have added the Emu, an ostrich-like
bird that inhabits the Outback. When drivers hit one with their cars,
a large repair job results.
- Nothing could have prepared me for that ride. I suffered
under a merciless sun. The heat sucked moisture out of my pores faster
than I could pour it back into my body. I carried five gallons of water
in plastic jugs. A thousand times I asked- myself what was I doing out
there? Why hadn't I listened to Richard. I cooked daily in the saddle
and broiled at night in my- tent. To top that off, Australian bush flies
attacked me every time I stopped. Those demonic monsters respected no
one, and- they seemed to be searching for water themselves in that desolate
land. As soon as I stopped, they attacked my eyes, mouth, -nostrils and
ears. I prayed for head winds. I prayed for tail winds. I got no winds.
At night, flies circled my tent in an- expectant swarm, trying to find
a break in the netting. I lay there in my underpants, sweating in the
evening heat, cursing them and waiting for sleep to take me away from their
noisy torment. The one good thing I remember was staring up at an- uncommonly
clear night sky with millions of twinkling stars complimented by the Southern
- Each morning, I woke up before sunrise, ate breakfast
and pedaled into the quickly rising heat of the day. It never -dropped
below 95 degrees at night and the mercury popped 115 by the afternoon.
It was like breathing air from a portable hair dryer.
- The Outback defies description. Its vast landscape
of red clay, and white sands reaches to the horizon in every direction.
Scrub bushes grow close to the ground but they too give way to the burning
160-degree heat at ground level at midday. In many areas, nothing grows.
- The only companion that I could count on was the sun--
always shining and blistering hot. Because of it, and the -endless immensity
of the land, the Outback swallowed my confidence. There were no reference
points, no humanity for -hundreds of miles. Traffic on the trans-Australia
highway was nonexistent. A true sense of solitude crept into my mind.
Road-houses were 120 miles apart, but they were nothing more than wooden
buildings with a gas pump outside. When I reached one, my spirits rose
because I knew that cold pop was waiting in their generator powered coolers.
- I stalked into the house, swatting bush
flies and headed straight for the cooler. A liter of icy orange pop vanished
into my mouth within seconds. I grabbed another before walking up to the
cashier to pay the bill. A half-hour later, the road house rippled in
the heat waves of my rearview mirror and quickly vanished, as if it had
never been there. I was back to drinking tepid water and watching miles
of nothing slip by.
- This routine repeated itself for weeks, until one day
in the middle of the continent, I approached a turnoff where the highway
touches the ocean. Before reaching it however, I cruised along, minding
my own business when up ahead, I saw something move across the road. The
closer I came, the bigger it grew. Finally, I focused on it. A Camel!
It was a big, shaggy camel--out in the middle of nowhere. He walked up
to me, sniffed my pack, then trotted north into the Outback. Later, I
found out that more than 35,000 wild camels roamed the desert in Oz. They
were brought in from the Middle East for transport trains from Adelaide
to Alice Springs and on to Darwin, right up the middle of Australia. When
mechanized transport arrived, the camels we re turned loose in the desert.
- Late in the day, I turned off the road for a short ride
to the Great Australian Bight on the coast. Rugged cliffs offered a- spectacular
view. It was the only relief I had enjoyed from the bush flies for several
weeks. After eating a snack, I pedaled -back toward the main road.
- At the juncture of the highway, a large emu stood in
my way. He was black feathered, stood five feet tall and weighed more
than 90 pounds. The bird walked right up to me, expecting a handout.
He had panhandled other tourists who had stopped at these scenic turnouts.
I gave him a piece of my apple.
- After taking a few pictures, I decided to be on my way.
The bird began running alongside me. My bike had eighteen gears, so
I started cranking it up the freewheel. With every increase in speed from
me, the emu ran faster. With nothing else to do, I decided to see how
fast the bird could run. I clicked into high gear, and held a good 24
miles per hour for a hundred yards. It didn't faze the emu. He thumped
along with me, not even breathing hard. I, however, was gasping and sweating
like a horse. Enough of this! I slowed down to my usual 12 miles per
hour. The emu again matched my pace. What the devil?! If he didn't mind
running alongside, I didn't mind his company. I talked to him--asking
him about his family and kids.
- "How's your mother-in-law?" I asked. "Get
along with her pretty well? How does she deal with this heat? Any of
your kid s play cricket?"
- After no answer, I continued, "Do you know of any
ice cold swimming pools around here buddy? Have any friends who sell
Dreamsicles? Man, could I curl my tongue around a Dreamsicle right about
- The emu never looked over during the whole conversation,
but kept perfect stride with me.
- This new partnership continued for 30 miles. I really
enjoyed George's (his new name) company. But it was time to call it a
day, so I turned off the highway and pitched my tent a hundred meters off
the road. George walked into the bush with me and stood while I cooked
dinner. I threw him another piece of apple. An hour later, with the sun
set, George's black -silhouette pressed against the sky as he seemingly
stood guard outside my tent.
- "You don't have to stay here all night George.
Go find your friends. I'm out of apples."
- George didn't budge. I finished dinner and went to bed
with him standing outside my tent. Around three o'clock, I woke up.
A glance outside my tent revealed George standing guard. I felt safe.
- Next morning, I woke up with my new friend standing in
the same spot.
- "G'day George," I said. "This is going
to be a test of your character to run 150 kilometers today mate."
- George snaked his beak down to my tent flap.
- "Okay, you want some food," I said. "Just
wait till I finish eating, okay?!"
- "Crazy bird," I said, talking to myself. "This
is outrageous. I'm out in the middle of nowhere, 12,000 miles from home--and
here you stand guard over my tent all night--in this one tiny spot on the
face of the earth, and all you want is a piece of apple. It's a cheap
price to pay for your friendship George."
- "I couldn't agree with you more," I answered.
"But you gotta' work on your vowels my friend."
- I packed my gear and walked out to the road with George
following. I fed him a piece of bread. He again took up his- effortless
stride alongside my bike. It was like having my own dog as my best friend
and traveling companion. After an hour, I stopped for a drink and squirted
water into George's face. He pranced around in a circle like a banshee,
crowing a weird sound. He loved the water.
- "You're one crazy bird," I said. "Here,
have another shot."
- I squirted a steady stream into his face. He opened
his beak and caught the water like a funnel. It drained down his throat.
When half my bottle was gone, I stopped. He flapped his wings and danced
around some more, squawking happily. He loved the attention. We were
- Minutes later, I pedaled west, with a blazing sun rising
high into the sky. Sweat dripped off my nose and chin onto the tube.
I looked for George, but he wasn't with me. I looked back. He was gone.
"I'll be darned," I said. "I was enjoying -George's company."
- I pulled around in a big circle on the highway, but no
George was in sight. The Outback stretched to the four horizons.
- Some kind of joy faded from my spirit when George quit
our partnership. Loneliness crept in again, but I told myself that it
was better to have enjoyed him than never to have met him at all. He proved
one lesson to me that day--all great journeys through life are better,
when shared by two.
- I looked around one more time, but the Outback rippled
in the heat waves. Better get on with it. I had half a continent to go.
- Excerpt from Bicycling Around the World: Tire Tracks
for Your Imagination by Frosty Wooldridge, <http://www.amazon.com>www.amazon.com ,
Kindle, copies 1 888 280 7715