The desert demands so much, and provides so little.
When I was cycling the Oodnadatta Track, I decided in a melodramatic fit of frustration that this was surely the most godforsaken place in the world.
It is now a few weeks since I reached Marree and finished the Oodnadatta Track, which has given me some time to reflect on the ordeal of cycling it. And, well, I still consider it the most godforsaken place, but I also kind of miss it. Looking back, I might even allow that I enjoyed it!
The 600 kilometre Oodnadatta Track traces the route of the old 'Great Northern Railway', something of a misnomer when you check a map and notice that the railway didn't actually extend very far north into the Australia's inhospitable interior. From 1891, the town of Oodnadatta was the frontier railhead of the the railway; supplies were brought here from the south and unloaded onto camels to head through the wilderness, to Alice Springs, and beyond. These camels and their handlers, were imported from Afghanistan, earning the railway the nickname, 'The Ghan'.
Railway construction beyond Oodnadatta began in 1929, and the local residents were understandably distraught; their town lost its significance, and became just another unimportant stop en route to Alice Springs. Today, the railway has been rerouted entirely, and Oodnadatta's population has dropped to just 100 people. In some ways it's a miracle anyone still lives there at all, many other settlements along the railway have disappeared entirely.
I cycled into Oodnadatta passing a welcome sign, 'The driest town, of the driest state, of the driest continent.' Ironically, it was raining. I continued pedalling through the town searching for the centre, but after only 300 metres I had pedalled right out the other side and faced empty desert again. Despite all the space, it was claustrophobic; the tiny town was besieged on all sides by desolate land, and there was nowhere to go. A strong wind gusted a stream of sand down the main road, through the town, and back into the desert beyond, as though Nature didn't even recognise the presence of man here.
It was three water-less days from Oodnadatta until the next town. I had to raid a recycling bin to get enough water bottles to carry the 25 litres of water my survival demanded. Combined with 14 days of food, an uninspiring diet of pasta, tuna and porridge oats, my bike was the heaviest it had ever been, a hefty 90 kilograms. I could barely lift it, and it placed immense strain on the bike, which threatened to collapse at any moment, like an exhausted horse. My cycling buddy, Jaimi, carried the same as we wobbled through the sand and into the nothingness. The absurdity of what we were trying to do amused us; this was truly a ridiculous challenge.
In hot places, my plan is always the same; Cycle early, cycle late, find shade during the midday heat. When I had told a man that I always rested in shade during the day, he had flashed a knowing grin, and said, 'Hey, if you see a tree, take a photo and put it on Facebook.' Now I knew what he had meant; out here, there was no shade. It was just flat, dry lifeless earth in every direction. We constructed our own shade, tying a sheet between our bikes at around 11am each day. We would lay sweating under this makeshift shelter for 5 hours, enduring the roasting 40ºC heat. It was too hot to read, too hot to sleep, too hot to do anything but lay down and hope late afternoon would bring cooler temperatures. Time dragged, and sometimes seemed to stop altogether. Knowing I would have to do the same tomorrow, again the day after, and again for all of the next week took me to mental places I had never been before. My mind drifted home. With the time difference I pictured my Mum just waking up in England on a frosty November morning. Perhaps she would glance out the window, pausing a moment to admire the sunrise. The same sun that was slowly killing me on the other side of the world.
But amazingly, it wasn't the heat that caused the most discomfort, it was the flies. As I cycled along, I could see the flies, great clouds of the horrible things, leaping up from the nearest cow-pat, and joining the swarm that encircled me. I could see them rejoicing that they had some fresh eyes to buzz into. In this dry landscape, it's the moisture that they are attracted to, so a sweaty cyclist looks as delightful to them, as a cold beer and a swimming pool would have looked to me! I could feel them mopping up the sweat on my forehead and around my eyes and nostrils. I lost count of how many I accidentally swallowed or snorted. Mealtimes, which had been the only enjoyable part of the day, whipped them into a frenzy, as they plunged themselves like kamikaze pilots into my pasta and tuna, where they promptly drowned. The lengths they were willing to go to to completely ruin my day was really rather remarkable.
I developed a number of coping strategies, none of which had any success. Jaimi told me that they only live for 2 weeks, so I tried to feel privileged that they had chosen to spend that time with me, but I quickly decided a 2-week life span was roughly 14-days too long. I pretended it was the gentle caress of a beautiful girl, but I got frustrated with this imaginary lover – Why did she keep poking her fingers in my eyes?! I tried to meditate and maintain a zen-like composure, but I ended up swatting angrily at them. They dodged my swatting with ease, and teased me, by landing on the back of my still swinging hand, which only aggravated me more. I have never felt quite so helpless in my life.
'Jaimi. Got flies?' I called back.
'Yep. Heaps.' she groaned.
'I'm really sorry to hear that.' I said, with not a shred of sincerity. At least there was someone else having just as miserable a time as I was. That made me feel a little better.
With so many challenges, you're probably asking yourself how I found the energy to keep going. I can't answer that, I'm wondering the same.
To be continued... (The next post will be more positive... I promise!!)