As the plane had descended into Darwin, I had gazed south. Beyond the grey smudge of city, I could see a huge distance - perhaps 40 or 50 kilometres - of nothingness, which stretched right up to the horizon. I pictured this vastness extending over that horizon, then the horizon after that and, indeed, for many more horizons, all the way to Adelaide, several thousand kilometres to the south. Coming from England, I had never seen such emptiness, and having spent the past year in the densely populated chaos of Asia made it all the more shocking. I swallowed a lump in my throat as I remembered I was about to ride a bicycle across it. Straight through the middle of the outback.
A few days later I stood in Darwin at the start of the Stuart Highway, which crosses Australia from north to south, straight through the country's hostile centre. My route would follow the sandy footsteps of John McDouall Stuart who had become the first European explorer to cross the Australian interior 150 years before. A sign read; 'Alice Springs – 1479 kilometres.' And Alice Springs was only halfway through the outback! Cautiously, I began to pedal. The first pedal strokes of the countless it would take me to reach the other side. Even having cycled from England, I wondered; 'Had I finally bitten off too much?'.
Australia posed problems I had not encountered before. The distances between towns necessitated that I always knew where my next food and water was coming from. Outside the major towns, food was unbelievably expensive, and if you ran out of water in the desert,- well, no amount of money could help you then.
Water was my priority, as it was for everything else trying to survive there. A glance at the map revealed towns and villages named after water features; Adelaide River, Pine Creek, Wycliffe Well, Daly Waters and Alice Springs. It is the very existence of water that permits all life out here. Ribbons of blue threaded across my map, though I was always disappointed to arrive and discover a pathetic river or creek bed, completely dry and dusty. Nearby signs would indicate a risk of flooding, which I found ironic. It seems the wet season can be very wet and the dry season very dry.
Upon arriving in Australia I had learnt, though rather too late, that this was the very end of the dry season. It had been six months since the last drop of rain, which made the landscape its most dry and unforgiving. 'The Build-Up' had just started, and the wet season was fast approaching, though this season is characterised by heavy rains, flooding, violent storms and intense humidity. Not ideal for cycling. My friend in Darwin, a cyclist herself, referred to me as 'a straggler.' People cycle this route each year, though almost all would have left several months before, “It's going to be hot... but you won't die,” she had said, which I didn't find especially reassuring.
This extreme northern section of Australia, the 'Top-End', juts into the tropics, which made the heat humid and my thirst unquenchable. Drinking 10 litres a day did little to quell my headaches which throbbed for water. Respite never came; even at night the temperature barely dipped below 30°C, what we would call a 'heatwave' in England. I would be sweating when I fell asleep, and sweating when I woke up.
Respite eventually came in the form of Litchfield National Park, a heavenly oasis in the desert, a short detour west of the Stuart Highway. During the rainy season, the sandstone landscape absorbs water, much like a sponge, which it then releases throughout the year. Pedalling into the park, I left the drought behind and was rewarded with waterfalls to shower under and waterholes to dive into. Short walks abounded and viewpoints peered out through this glorious landscape.
5 days after leaving Darwin, I pedalled into Katherine, the biggest town between Darwin and Alice Springs, a chance to restock food, and visit the nearby gorge. But summer and hotter temperatures were falling across Australia, and I was a long way from safety, so I couldn't hang around long. I continued pedalling south, in search of cooler temperatures, increasingly remote landscapes, and more adventure. I was only just getting started!