Crossing New South Wales on Two Wheels and Calf Muscles
“Where’ve you come from and where’re you goin’?” asks Gary as he lashes our steeds, Baxter and Reidy McSqueak, to the roof of the boat.
He seems a little disappointed at the answer — that we’re only one day into a trip from Newcastle back home to Brisbane.
“Took a Brazilian bloke and his bike back the other way yes’dy,” he says. “He’s going around the world.”
Robbie grins and nods. We saw the Brazilian yesterday, battling a headwind that whipped at the tattered green, yellow and blue flag poking from his rear panniers as he smiled and waved in response to our hoots from across the road. We’d talked about him all day – wondering where he’d come from and where he was going. It was our first day of touring and we felt an affinity with the stranger heading south.
Our first day had been a good one, despite the occasional rain. We camped on a headland under a lighthouse watching giant winter swells refract into Nelson Bay. Dolphins swam by to check us out, metres from our tent.
Now, on Gary’s ferry across to Tea Gardens at the far end of Port Stephens, the dolphins are back. They watch us from just beneath the surface, skimming along in the boat’s wake. On the waterfront at Tea Gardens, we fire up my noisy stove to boil up some porridge, and pensioners approach to ask who we are and where we’re going.
I’m convinced there is no more dignified way to travel than on a bicycle. There are no departure times to rush for and no snoring, stinking, loud or overweight fellow passengers. There is no cocoon of steel and glass insulating you from the sounds of birds and the sun on your face. There is just you and your bike, a mechanism of fabulous simplicity that can be fixed and tinkered on without the help of extortionate mechanics.
There is a flipside. The joy of free-wheeling a fully-laden touring bike off a mountain, the wind screaming in your ears, is earned only by dragging yourself up the other side in the first place. All that sunshine you’re getting could just as easily be rain. It takes much longer to get anywhere, but that is kind of the point. Waiting around reading or people-watching in bus stations, train platforms and airports is one of the often-overlooked joys of backpacking, but at times I’ve found the dependence on someone else’s timetable stifling.
“Snack break?” Robbie and I ask each other as we roll towards a park, a view or a town. On our second day in the saddle, we jump a gate to find a fire trail cut through Myall Lakes National Park, which saves us a long round trip and a ferry ride over Boolambayte Lake, spitting us out on the Lakes Way south of Forster.
On the second night, camping at the edge of Booti Booti National Park, a man named Howard invites us to use his barbecue and borrow some sausages.
“I came here once I realised I was paying $11,000 a year just to live in a fucking retirement home,” he says.
He’s found living in his tent and moving between national parks a cheaper, more rewarding existence in his advanced years. He directs us around his camp kitchen from his chair, sipping on a glass of something strong-smelling and telling us about his time as a 19-year-old soldier in Vietnam. He tells us about losing friends in the jungle and the “greenies and the hippies” who spat on him and other soldiers when they disembarked at Wynyard on the trip home.
“You can wash up and fuck off now,” he tells us when we finish the food. “And if I don’t see you in the morning, have fun and maybe I’ll run you over somewhere.”
Later, from our tent, we can hear him shouting in his sleep.
Each town is different. It sounds obvious, but it’s more noticeable when you roll in on a bicycle. Uki is a hippy village where people dress like medieval lords and ladies. Forster, Yamba and especially Port Macquarie are built specifically for the hordes of retirees flooding out of Brisbane and Sydney. Crescent Head and Grassy Head are sleepy paradises resting before the frenzy that consumes them in high summer. Urunga is an insulated country town overlooked by the highway, and its Ocean View Hotel comes highly recommended for the cycle tourist wanting to be among humans again.
There are lots of hippies in Nana Glen, but unlike those in Uki they all drive utes and grow (legal) crops while a little further up the Orara Valley, Glenreagh is more of a traditional farmer’s town where the local pub boasts a Big Golden Dog out the front. I think you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who’s lived in Lennox Head more than 10 years anymore. Murwillumbah is quiet, Macksville is congested and Ballina is just plain unfriendly, but Grafton is a gorgeous, relaxed old river town.
Along the way, we call on as many friends, family, and family of friends as we can muster. Susan and Andrea give us wine and beds near Kew’s Big Axe. Calvin and Lisa cook up a grand roast and tell stories about the more colourful side of the seafood industry, from freak waves swamping fishing trawlers in the Tasman Sea to dining with members of the Triad gangs in Cabramatta. We stay with Lisa’s parents, John and Elaine, who have lived in Yamba for 70-odd years (right behind the swanky YHA), since the town’s gentrified main street was just another residential stretch where kids played cricket. Elaine is delighted to tell us about a weekly ritual she’s developed with a few local ladies.
“I first started when one of my friends invited me to come tea-bagging with her,” she says as we sit watching the Commonwealth Games, ignoring Robbie and I as we choke on our tea. “I said, ‘Fantastic, I’ll bring a thermos of hot water then’. Gail said, ‘No, what are you talking about?’ I replied, ‘Well, I presume we’re going to drink tea?’ Then she said, ‘No silly, we’re going for a swim! We just call it tea bagging because we mostly end up just bobbing around in the water and chatting.’ A little different to what I expected, but we have a lovely time.”
Our biggest climb comes on the last day, where we scratch our way up from the flats around Murwillumbah to the Queensland-New South Wales border on a ridge between the Springbrook and Lamington National Parks. The reward is a long, fast descent into the Numinbah Valley, where the slight rise in temperature, the browner landscape and the less-friendly drivers let us know we’re in Queensland again. The sunshine state doesn’t allow cyclists on its motorways, so before long we’re dodging traffic and schoolkids through the Gold Coast’s numbing wasteland of suburban sprawl and gargantuan shopping centres on our way to Nerang station.
On the train into Brisbane, a guy eyes us off before piping up.
“Where’d you come from, thin?”
“Newcastle,” Robbie replies.
“Naw shut, too far hey. How long?”
“Too far brew, too far.”
He might be right, and the drivers who think it’s funny to scare you, the sweaty uphills, the punctured sleeping mats, the lack of amenities, the aches and the pains are all discomforts that the cycle tourist knows well. After two weeks in the saddle, I still holler with fear every time a semi-trailer thunders past my shoulder. But there is a simplicity to such an existence, and a satisfaction at not only seeing a landscape, but being immersed in it, as the rustling of trees in a breeze, the conversations of pedestrians and the calls of birds blend with the happy buzz of your derailleur and the hum of your tyres on the road.
It comes highly recommended.