CRAAAACK! Jaimi skidded to a halt in front of me. I swerved, braking hard and narrowly avoided colliding into her. I saw her mudguard mangled into the rear wheel, plastic and metal, buckled and bent. “It's just your mud guard,” I told her, relieved; had it been the derailleur (the thing that changes the gears) or a few spokes, we could have had a real problem.
She peered back for inspection. “Nope, it's the derailleur too.” she said, sounding deflated.
We were 3 kilometres into 200 kilometres of dirt track. Both bikes were anchored down with 25 litres of water (25 kilograms!) to last us the three days to the next water-tank, and the temperature was hitting 40 degrees, even hotter in the sun. And now one bike was broken, leaving us stranded.
We carry spare parts for problems we expect to encounter, but a broken derailleur is just unforeseeable bad luck. We could not fix it, but we could possibly bodge something. I cut the derailleur off, scrap metal now, removed half the chain which was twisted, and reattached what was left. The bike worked, but Jaimi only had 1 gear while I had 27. At least this levelled the playing field; now I might be able to keep up!
We were in the heartland of Australia, closing in on the icon of the outback, Uluru (Ayer's Rock), but we were coming in 'through the back door' on arduous sand roads, which meant we saw hardly anyone else. Even heading to such a famous attraction as Uluru, I could count each day's passing cars on my hands. So, imagine my shock when two ghostly spectres on the horizon began taking the form of cyclists. Arjan and Sylvia from Holland had started their trip the week before and were riding to Uluru too. We were a band of 4 cyclists, tackling the desert together. Once our tents were up, Sylvia withdrew a ukulele and harmonica from her bags, and they began performing some Elvis. I sang along quietly, and then lay back in the warm sand and watched the stars; this is what it was all about!
The road was heavily corrugated; if you've never cycled on corrugated road before, allow me to explain. Spanning the width of the road were deep, unavoidable waves of sand and gravel caused by vehicles. The bicycle wheels would drop into each trough, lurching out only to slam into the next one. I imagined it similar to riding a rodeo bull, as our bikes bucked around, desperate to throw us off. Going too fast could quite possibly break our bikes when they were so heavy. And it would certainly break our wrists and bums. In short, corrugation makes for a slow and bumpy ride.
The corrugations were less at the edge of the road, but here the road was sandy, and our wheels sank in, often too deeply to make it through. I never did decide which was worse, the corrugations or the sand, though it generally seemed to be whichever I was on at the time, so I switched frequently, zig-zagging across the road. The others did the same, leaving behind 4 tracks, almost comical in the erratic manner they wiggled across the road, ever-searching for the path of least resistance – or rather, the path of least discomfort. I won't complain though, unlike Jaimi, at least I had gears.
They're challenging, but I love these dirt roads. I felt connected with nature in a way you can't on a strip of asphalt with cars thundering. It was refreshing to escape people, to go to a place where apart from the clunk of our chains, there was silence. Time slows down and the time pressures that so often haunt us faded away.
Unsurprisingly, we saw more wildlife here, and thankfully, it didn't come in the form of roadkill, as so much Australian wildlife seems to. Bemused wild horses stared on at the peculiar sight of four cyclists in the desert. A snake slithered across the road, making giant 'S' shapes in the sand. One night a dingo – a feral species of dog whose ancestry goes back to the Grey Wolf - padded around our tents, howling into the night. I lay motionless waiting for it to eat me, but it decided to leave us alone.
These dirt roads require some maintenance, to stop the corrugations becoming too treacherous. A few times a year they are 'graded', a powerful vehicle drives along flattening the corrugations. With 60 kilometres to King's Canyon, we saw a sign beside the road, 'Grader Ahead'. A few kilometres later, we saw it, in all its reverential and dust-covered beauty, a giant bulldozer. Suddenly, the road was smoother than I ever remembered roads being. It felt like ice, frictionless, and our bikes seemed to roll on forever. We were cheering and waving at the construction man. In the excitement, I think I even blew him a few kisses. He must have found total job satisfaction that day.
After three days, we reached King's Canyon, locked our bikes at the bottom and climbed up to the rim. From here we could see the gaping mouth of the canyon, the trickle of a stream and a flourish of greenery below, but it was also the perfect vantage point to stare out to the flat distance. We had come a long way, but further was still to go. Arjan and Sylvia decided to take a rest day, so Jaimi and I headed off into the desert, alone again.