Triplogue - Australia I

1-2 March, Sydney (f)

Much to surprise of all of our friends, we’d always planned to arrive the day after Sydney’s famed gala event, the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. The frenzied party is just too much for us as we advance in age. We landed, put our bikes together and found our way to town. Bicycle assembly took just a little longer than it should have. For some odd reason the brake cables had been detached from their anchors on the brakes in front, forcing me to adjust them before we could leave. Making me appreciate the job our mechanic, Wade Dollar of Sun Cycles in Phoenix, had done on our retreat all the more.

Oddly enough Sydney’s normally neurotic drivers were calm, so the ride to town was almost calming. We got lost along the way and we just asked a group of Mardi Gras revelers on the street how to find Jonathan’s house. The leather-panted sequin-bloused disco bunny on the remnants of a speed and ecstasy trip didn’t know Jonathan by name but he did know the street. Our gracious host didn’t even flinch when we rolled our beasts into his apartment, but he was a little shocked by our burden. His boyfriend du jour, Michel, was most enchanting and we both fell head over heels for him. Almost too beautiful to look at, I found it difficult to concentrate in his often scantily clad presence.

Mardi Gras’ shock waves were still to be felt that evening. Several of the bars hosted "recovery" parties, which seemed just another excuse to have too much to drink or whatever and dance. We witnessed one errant discoer slip into a seizure at one bar in the middle of the dance floor. Most seemed to care little about his near brush with death and kept dancing while his friends tried to revive him before carrying him downstairs to get medical attention.

The bedlam continued chez Jonathan; the comings and goings were non-stop during our visit. Even with all the craziness, he cooked us a marvelous blueberry pancake breakfast our first day and took the best care possible of us. The second night we hosted a "Mini-Party" at Jonathan’s where we all watched the Mardi Gras Parade on television. Participant after participant streamed by, each with more and more sequins as the queeny host and bitchy drag commentators dis’ed every passerby --all on national network television. Imagine the San Francisco or New York Gay Pride Parades getting coverage like that!

Though I like Sydney and all the distraction of a big city, I was ready to leave our third morning. Good fortune was with us on our departure. Our dear friends from Copenhagen Niels and Tomas were in town for the festivities and were ready to take a road trip with us. They’d even hinted that they wanted to ride a bit. I owe a special debt of gratitude towards Niels, who acted as my guardian angel last summer when I dislocated my shoulder. He gave me a great place to stay while I recovered.

Jonathan and Michel mug

Tomas contemplates his first day's ride

3 March, Sydney/Newcastle to Shoal Bay, 55km (guest writer/rider: Tomas Oppermann)

After Niels and I had experienced the Sydney Mardi Gras, it was time to meet Fred and Andrew and to go north with them. Niels and I rented a car and went to Jonathan’s to pick up the luggage of the two Bikebrats. Then we were to drive to Newcastle and Fred and Andrew were to take the train. Of course Niels and I took a wrong turn and almost had to go all the way back to Sydney, after we had driven about 60 km. We made it to Newcastle only half an hour later than the train-travelers.

It was soon decided that Fred and I were riding. We started from the station in Newcastle where an elderly "sweetheart" gave us directions to the boat to the other side of the water. When we got off the boat the riding began and it was very fast discovered that you couldn’t ride two next to each other, as a bus nearly ran us down. I was quite glad when Niels and Andrew passed us and stopped, because I was riding in my swimsuit and could now change to cycling shorts. After riding a while we met Niels and Andrew again – this time for cold drinks and a snack in a tiny village called Bob’s Farm. How nice to have a service team scouting in advance and securing basic needs.

The day went well and the 55 kilometers did not scare any of us away. We passed the first koala road sign, although this one probably was erected by a real estate broker trying to improve the image of a new neighborhood.

After the ride, we still had enough energy to climb the 190-meter Tomaree Head. Estimated time was 1 hour but this young and healthy team did the expedition in only half an hour; due to sunset and hunger we speeded up.

The evening was spent in Shoal Bay next to Nelson Bay. Both bays had seen better days when they served as the Monte Carlo of Sydney. Today they represent a living museum of how nice things used to be. We truly enjoyed this retro atmosphere and were quite fond of Shoal Bay until we received a parking ticket the next day for violating the one-hour parking in this empty town.

4 March, Shoal Bay to Forster, 114km (a)

Fred and I had to creep out of our apartment this morning in order to make our 8:30 boat without waking our Danish friends. We arrived at the port early and had breakfast at a friendly little café there. Both the owners and other patrons proffered abundant advice as to our route, and told us about the "mountain" we’d have to climb at Buladelah. Scanning the flat horizon, I shrugged this off as yet more Australian hyperbole.

Save an elderly Australian couple, we were the only passengers aboard the tiny ferry to Tea Gardens, across a huge inlet known as Port Stephens. Our captain was a friendly young guy called Tim who said he’d stop if he spotted any dolphins, and that the chances for a sighting stood at around 95%. As we reached our destination, I was beginning to think that our cruise belonged to that other 5%, but felt I had received sufficient entertainment value for my dollar from our co-passenger. When I told him we were traveling on to Indonesia, he said he’d spent some time there, "stuck in the bush and starving on Timor." He had been stationed at an airbase there during the war. When the Japanese attacked without warning, his unit was instructed to destroy as much as they could and hide in the jungle. His unit was "expendable," he said, so they were elated to make radio contact with an American submarine after two months of chewing on bark in the forest. When the sub arrived, it sent out a launch, which couldn’t get beyond the breakwater, and since the Australians were too weakened to swim, they had to be hauled by a rope through water teeming with sharks. "There was thirty-four of us and forty Yanks, so we were pretty cramped in that little sub. The worst part, though, was when the engine room caught fire. Still, I made it back in one piece and I’ve been grateful to Americans ever since. They didn’t have to save us, you know." Later, with his wife patiently surveying the waters for swimming mammals and me up in the bridge with captain Tim, he told Fred the same tale. Then, just as we were pulling into port, two gray objects jumped out of the water –a dolphin and her calf. Tim said he couldn’t get too close since dolphin moms are very protective, while the "teenage ones practically jump in the boat."

Back on shore, my first impression of Australian roads was their miserable state of repair. It was as if an unstirred stew of rocks and tar had been haphazardly strewn upon the soil. We bumped and jostled our way across a bridge known as the "Singing Bridge" for the sound it makes when the wind blows across it (not today, thankfully) and into the vast and deserted Myall Lakes National Park. The road here was gloriously free of traffic, protected from the wind by dunes on one side and thick "bush" (Australian for forest) on the other. Apart from the sound of our wheels whirring on the sorry excuse for pavement, all we could hear were the exotic squawkings and buzzings of unfamiliar birds and insects. I kept scouring the treetops for koalas, with no success.

To get a view of the beach, we rode to the top of one of the lower (and more) accessible dunes, where two long-haired rocker types from Newcastle were both peering mysteriously through high-powered binoculars. Something about them made Fred and me think they were members of our tribe, but neither of us bothered to ask. Instead, we continued to push our way northwards, past magnificent lakes (lagoons, really) full of black swans and jumping fish. After over thirty km of this cycling bliss, we boarded another ferry back to the "mainland." –this time an old cable ferry covering a distance that could be swum across in about a minute.

The other side had one nasty little surprise for us: the road leading to Buladelah, our intended lunch stop, was gravel; there were even a few hills. But the scenery –verdant cow pastures fringed in thick eucalyptus and crowned with rocky outcroppings—was magnificent, so the 16 kilometers of taint torture went by quickly.

Buladelah looked to me like a classic Australian rural town, with a dusty main street that looked straight out of a cowboy flick. It was hotter than hell. We stopped in the most palatable-looking place for lunch, and were surprised to find it run by a trio of Sapphic womyn. As well as cooking up awesome veggie burgers, they sold local crafts, garage-sale bric-a-brac, and a variety of healing herbs. The whole ambiance was very "Fried Green Tomatoes", which, combined with the air conditioning, made it a very hard place to leave.

From Buladelah the going got very tough indeed. First we rode a bit along the main Pacific Highway, which didn’t strike us as busy at all, and then headed back towards the coast through a chain of very high hills. While beautiful (and providentially shaded for the most part), the route required more effort than was ideal on such a hot day. The sweat streamed off us.

During the last part of day we had to grapple with twin evils of a killer headwind and increasing traffic. These were mitigated somewhat by the pretty views riding along the shores of Myall, Smith and Wallis lakes, and the sea breeze here cooled things off considerably. We stopped at the only business for miles around, the general store in a place called Bungwahl (three guesses to come up with the BikeBrats moniker). The young, rugbyesque shopkeeper was a living stereotype, an overgrown fratboy incapable of constructing an utterance not including the word "mate" (pronounced "might" in Australian). Like all of his ilk, he queried us on our mad voyage, showing his approval of our efforts with copious use of another Australianism, "good on you" (pronounced "g’donya"), which we’ve come to interpret as "well done" or "good for you." As we sat outside rehydrating ourselves, barefoot locals would burst upon the scene, shouting incomprehensibly (except for the word "mate" that is) to their businessman friend inside and reemerge carrying beer, ice cream or both.

Back in Foster Bay, I had left Niels and Tomas a map with both Buladelah and Bungwahl circled as possible relay posts, and figured we’d run across him one way or the other. But as we rolled into Forster late in the afternoon there was still no sign of them. To find them we dialed Niels’ mobile number in Denmark and learned they were already checked into a motel, having missed us during our long lunch break. We found them frolicking in the pool, and jumped in to join them in our scrungy biking gear (for the sake of future guests, we hope the water is heavily chlorinated).

A sunset walk along the seaside provided the day’s only major drama when I stepped on a stringy, electric blue jellyfish. It stung horribly, and made me feel like I might have an allergic reaction. Holding the shot of epinephrine I’ve carried with me since a bad reaction to fire ants in Texas ten years ago, I let Niels drive me to the nearby hospital. It was a tiny place, full of people apologizing that it’s a private hospital and I might actually have to pay. Nearly employing the overused Australianism "No worries," I told them that, as an American, I’m used to paying for health care. Thanks to an effective triage process, I got out of there without spending a dime. They put me on the phone to a poison hotline, where an authoritative woman’s voice told me that the only problem caused by "blue-bottle jellyfish" was the intense pain from their stings. Armed with this information (and immensely relieved), I happily popped a Vicadin back at our motel and joined the others in the nightly search for dinner.

Although inveterate meat-and-potato eater Tomas was a little reticent about it, we decided upon a Mexican place for dinner. The food was surprisingly good, but the service was abysmal. It took nearly an hour for our guacamole appetizer to arrive. We killed a portion of this excruciatingly long wait by checking out the view of the moon from a massive telescope set up at the optometrist’s next door, at $2 a peek. Over dinner –where the high point was Fred barking "come here" to the inattentive waitroid-- it was established that Tomas and Niels would be riding tomorrow. Niels tells me that the highest point in Denmark is 190 meters, an altitude we surpassed several times today. For their benefit, I’m hoping that tomorrow’s ride will be gentler.

Captain Tim

Black swan specs on Myall Lake

Water sports

Tayla goes for her second bee-ah

5 March, Forester to Wingham, 57km (guest writer/rider: Niels Kaae)

‘It will be a simple ride’, said Andrew and continued, ‘You will have a tail wind and no serious hills’. With this in mind, Tomas and I left Forester after a relaxed breakfast in this off-peak holiday twin town. We had agreed to swap means of transportation, implying that we would get Fred and Andrew’s well-tuned bikes and they would get our air-conditioned rental car. It would soon turn out that bikeriding around the world with two pair of underwear is more hard work than an easy holiday.

Shortly after our start, an old lady took a left turn right in front of me, forcing me to an immediate and complete stop. This was an early warning of the inconsiderate Australian driver. Along the suicidal main road along the ocean, Tomas and I were both scared of the speed and proximity of the drivers. We were looking forward to the promised land on the quiet roads. Soon our hopes were fulfilled and we turned away from the main road and onto a nice quiet route that Andrew and Fred had found for us.

For some odd reason Andrew suggested an alternative route than the one indicated in their Cycling Australia bible. Referring to Andrew this new route was shorter and more decorative. Reality was that after a few romantic kilometers this route turned into HELL. Gravel roads with huge holes combined with steep hills and an ever increasingly burning sun. Fred and Andrew themselves got lost in the maze of dirt roads with our rental car surviving bridges breaking under it.

After some hours in Lucifer’s back garden, we finally met the BikeBrats. Tomas was exchanged with Andrew, and Andrew and I finished the day in Wingham after an exhausting finale on the hilly roads of New South Wales.

As if this wasn’t enough we decided to drive by car to the Ellenborough waterfall 45 km away from Wingham, partly on dirt road of course. Having enjoyed the falls for a few minutes, we rushed back to Wingham to see the tens of thousands of bats living in a planted piece of rain forest near the center of town. The big event, however, was to see the bats leave their residence at sunset and while waiting for this to take place some very friendly Winghammers offered us predinner cocktails on the sidewalk that we occupied. Many thanks go to Ian, Ariana, Kaly and Tayla of Wingham for this generous act.

The evening ended in the most fancy (and only) Italian BYO restaurant in Wingham. Andrew brought Moet & Chandon champagne to celebrate our last evening together this time. Thank you for a fantastic mini-week and thank you for not forcing me to bike around the world.

The Batwatch, Wingham (f)

Our walk through the natural reserve at Wingham was much anticipated. We’d been reading about the huge community of flying foxes for days and couldn’t wait to have a look. On the way to the reserve there was a little preview of things to come. Strolling through the disproportionately vast public square that was too enormous to be surrounded completely by public edifices we noticed a bat hanging from the power lines. We were excited for the opportunity to see one so close and not obstructed by branches and leaves of trees. Closer inspection revealed that the poor creature had accidentally decided to light there and was electrocuted yet remained suspended from the wires.

It was already getting towards dusk as we arrived at the park. We hiked the trail through the park underneath the canopy with our eyes searching the upper branches for bats. We’d walked nearly the whole park without seeing a single one. Later we’d all mused about seeing all of these unusual fruits hanging in the trees but none actually had noticed a bat. While looking up at the upper reaches of a great tree whose trunk was textured with the folds of its roots one of the "fruits" flapped its wings. It was at that moment that we realized that there were thousands and thousands of really big bats above us. Some sported wingspans over one meter and looked more like dogs with wings than bats.

As it began to grow dark we started home through residential Wingham, where you could here a pin drop it was so quiet and calm. Parkside, a few elderly neighbors were chatting about their busy days when we happened by. It struck me at that moment that the bats were likely to leave the park en masse at any moment, and verified this with the gossips. They confirmed, so we sat down on the lawn of the house next door and awaited the show. As we sat watching for the bats and feeding the hummingbird-sized mosquitoes with our warm blood the "woman-of-the-house" arrived seemingly surprised by our presence in her yard.

A few moments later they released their vicious attack dog out the front door following it outside to mop up our remains. The twelve-ounce beast barked ferociously as it advanced on me, turning over on its back for a good tummy rubbing as soon as I reached out to pet it. I joked with Ian saying that it "looked like a barking hamster not a dog." Ian laughed and asked us what was up. I explained the situation, adding that we’d been told "that this was the best to view the bats because they served free drinks during bat viewing times." Ian laughed and went inside for beers and snacks. His whole family joined us on the sidewalk where we shot the breeze and watched the enormous winged creatures flap off to eat peaches in the warm summer night.

Shocking end for a Wingham bat

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