Summer swept across Australia with gusto, a fiery net ensnaring Jaimi and I, even as we fought to cycle south, further from the equator. Cooler weather remained 200 kilometres to the south, but by the time we got there, it had slipped further out of reach. While the temperature remained constant, we were at least pulling free of the tropics, escaping below the Tropic of Capricorn. Humidity is not to be underestimated; I would sooner cycle in 50 degrees of dry heat, than 30 degrees of wet heat. Now, we were sweating less, drinking less, and resultantly, carrying less water. I'm not going to say we were comfortable, but it was an improvement.
Cycling in hot places is all justified by those sacred hours straddling sunrise and sunset, where everything seems perfect. Jaimi and I resolved to cycle at these times, and retire to the shade during the scorched midday.
My day began at 5:30, not with the shrill assistance of an alarm – I don't think I've had to set an alarm in two years! - but with the dim shift of darkness in the sky. Alternatively, Jaimi would shout at me to wake up and get ready. We quietly broke camp in darkness, still sleepy but with deft, instinctive movements, honed through repetition.
By the time the sun finally broke the horizon, its rays would speed across the landscape to find us already on our bikes. The 'Grey Nomad' retirees who spend their retirement cruising the country in mobile homes were still asleep, so the road was quiet and ours. The landscape is at its most beautiful soaked in this golden light. We were rested, the air was cool, and the miles came easy. Even the animals and birds loved this hour, and hopped, scurried, fret, flew and scampered about, readying themselves for the day. We were watching the world awake.
In outback terms, the Stuart Highway is well-provisioned. Villages and roadhouses every 100 – 150 kilometres, and government-funded rest areas every 70 – 100 kilometres allow drivers to break up their marathon journeys, and weary cyclists to cower in their shade. Between midday – 4pm, this is where you would find us, cooking pasta or rice for lunch, writing our diaries or taking a nap. Or even, in a preposterous plan, which Jaimi had somehow coerced me into, of doing 50 push-ups to prevent 'atrophy in our upper body'.
At 4 we got back on the road, and at 6:30 we would stop. The Australian Outback is probably the easiest place in the world to camp for free. We would push our bikes 20 metres through the bush, and we were invisible, no-one in the world knew where we were. Maybe the nearest people were 50 kilometres away! I found this a comforting, and not a scary thought. We laid back on the baked, desert ground, watching darkness overcome the orange glow of vestigial sunlight, if we waited long enough, tolerating the mosquitoes, the milky way would appear bisecting the sky like a flaming arrow. I would try and read in my tent, but would normally fall asleep before 8. Whether it was Monday or Saturday,– indeed, we never knew what day it was – this was the peaceful rhythm we sank into, edging our way across the map.
Speak of routine and rhythm suggests a sense of predictability, but in Australia, the unexpected seldom strayed far, and often came in the form of the downright bizarre. I had the most random and unusual encounter of 2.5 years on the road when a policeman stepped out of his car to offer me a bottle of water. He asked the usual questions, where we were coming from, where we were going. And then suddenly;
'Listen, I'm driving from Darwin to Melbourne, and I'm so bored. I'm going to take all my clothes off, and run naked down the road. I need you to take a photo to send to my missus.'
I laughed, then composed myself and said;
'Mate, I wouldn't dream of letting you do this on your own. I'll join you.'
Liberated of our clothes, we ran naked through the outback, while Jaimi snapped a few photos. We put our clothes on, shook hands, and he drove away. The whole encounter lasted roughly 10 minutes.
We passed remote settlements and roadhouses which distinguished themselves from one another by becoming increasingly quirky. Giant statues command the hilltops behind Aileron, Wycliffe Well Roadhouse has proclaimed that it is the UFO capital of Australia and virtually guarantees a UFO sighting if you stay in their campsite (Is it just clever marketing?), and a set of traffic lights in the beer garden of Daly Waters heralds themselves as the most remote traffic lights in Australia. Go inside the Daly Waters pub, and it gets even stranger with every visitor leaving something behind, foreign money, ID cards, underwear, or an Irish hurling stick (who travels with a hurling stick?!) - all of these relics can be found here.
Even the landscape had surprises for us. Change occurs in the outback, but is generally slow and subtle. We arrived at 'Devil's Marbles', almost without warning. We were cycling through prickly bushes and golden spinifex grass, as we had been for days, when many boulders appeared. Smooth, and almost-perfect spheres, it was easy to see why they were likened to marbles. It really looked as though they had been dropped from the sky, and scattered across the plateau, coming to some precarious resting spots. I wondered if John McDouall Stuart had shared the same wonder, found the same element of surprise in Australia, when he had crossed the continent 150 years earlier? Almost certainly, I decided; it is this unknown, these blank spots on the map that have motivated explorers for centuries, and which continue to motivate me.
Arriving in Alice Springs was a milestone. The town is about as far from the ocean as it is possible to be in Australia, which meant I was halfway; from here on I was getting closer to the coast again, though it was still some 1,500 kilometres away. And this second half was set to be more challenging, for I was soon leaving the Stuart Highway, and heading onto sand and dirt tracks, places where bicycles were never meant to be taken. For now, I ignored that, and enjoyed the temporary return to civilisation, Alice Springs provided, an oasis in the desert for two weary cyclists with a long road ahead.