Hesitant pedal strokes swept me away from the refuge of Alice Springs. Now, the simple comforts people often take for granted would be a struggle. It would be weeks before I slept in a house, or had a shower again. My panniers were crammed with 11 days of basic food. Pasta. Porridge. Tuna. I hoped this diet would seem more appetising after a few days on the road. I was most reluctant to leave water behind. Cycling through Australia has taught me a new importance of water. So abundant in Alice Springs, it would soon be a treasured and tightly-rationed commodity.
But, some things are worth sacrificing these comforts for, and a fortnight cycling through some of Central Australia's most beautiful landscapes - the MacDonnell's mountain range, King's Canyon, Uluru – that was worth it!
The West MacDonnells (Tjoritja to the indigenous owners) begin immediately out of Alice Springs and stretch west for 160 kilometres. Mountains, painted the typically rich-red of Central Australia rose on both sides of the road, not as separate and distinguishable mountain peaks, but instead as one formidable wave of rock and crag extending further than the eye could see, like looking through a tunnel.
At 3am on the first night, a storm erupted outside. The wind funnelled through the valley and washed over my tent. I was very awake; I had weathered many storms on this trip, enough to know that this was not your average storm. Wind bit into canvas, and I watched as one corner of my tent buckled under the strain. The pegs I had nonchalantly pushed into the ground yesterday were flying out, so I rushed outside to hammer them further. In a flash of lightning I saw Jaimi, looking as if she'd just been swimming, half-drowned, smashing her pegs in too. I shouted something across to her, but my words were deafened by thunder and lost to the wind. Hammering in the pegs was as frustrating as the arcade game 'whack-a-mole'; as soon as I hammered one into the stony ground and started on the next, it would had been torn out. Completely drenched, I retired to my tent, where I lay like a starfish, each of my limbs holding the poles and tent corners in place. I was mere ballast, preventing my tent from blowing down the valley. I heard my empty 10 litre water tank bounce past (bounce, not roll!), narrowly missing a collision with my tent.
I must have drifted off to sleep at some point, for I awoke at sunrise, laying in a cold puddle of water, with my body, limbs still outstretched, propping up the sagging wreck of my tent. I crawled through the puddle, and out from beneath my tent. My flip flops had disappeared, so barefoot through the mud I surveyed the aftermath. Our things were scattered everywhere, and everything was wet. Jaimi soon emerged from her tent, which, I was not unhappy to see, had fared little better than mine. We wandered around aimlessly, and unsure where to begin the clean-up, we decided to take photos of the devastation. Last night, she had been hammering the tent pegs with a rock while using her phone as a torch. In her disorientation, she had confused them and smacked the peg with her phone screen, cracking it. Surprisingly, she was in the in the mood to find this funny, and our shared laughter lightened the mood.
The rains brought an injection of life to the desert, that was rather spectacular. Overnight, plants had become greener, and now glistened with beads of rain clinging to their leaves. Tiny, new seedlings had thrust through the cracked earth. Animals and birds seemed to be exploring their new environment for the first time, with a renewed vigour. Even the cliff faces, standing sentinel to the ages, had swelled in the storm, and found a more vibrant shade of red to display. We cycled beneath a rainbow which arched across the valley.
The West MacDonnell's are popular for the many gorges that puncture the valley walls, and the waterholes found there. It hadn't been the ideal start to a few days of swimming, but I was still keen to explore the area – it doesn't take much of an excuse to persuade me to take a break from cycling! The next days were balanced, we enjoyed a few hours of beautiful cycling, interspersed with a dip in a waterhole.
The final stop, Red Bank Gorge, was my favourite, its gorge walls so narrow I could stretch out my arms and touch both sides at once. As the sun shifted overhead, light fell in dazzling shafts, embellishing the red of the cliffs that rose high above. I swam through, clambering over rock, squeezing through gaps and getting lost in the canyon which only seemed to enclose around me even more. The water was frigid, seldom in the sun, but I was too excited to feel the cold, so I continued on, ever-curious about what the next corner would reveal. Besides, I had three days of dry, desert cycling next, where I would be consumed by dreams of freezing pools to swim in.
I never did discover how far the gorge continued, but I would guess it went on forever. The grand-daddy of canyons, King's Canyon, was only a few days away, so I turned around and swam back into the normal world. The West MacDonnell's had been fantastic, but this nomadic life never allowed me to stay anywhere for long. More places to see.