After a very comfortable night in the cabins at the Pinnaroo Motel & Cabins I feel refreshed and human again. I have a column due today and, while I have been pondering it intensely for the past 9 days that I’ve been on my bike, I still need to actually type and submit it. This is my usual methodology. I draft everything I write in my head and then just have to sit down to write it. So, after collecting some groceries for the coming days and chatting with a lovely lady outside the shop, I spend an hour or two enjoying the sunshine at a picnic table in a park. It’s early afternoon by the time I leave town and I have enjoyed my morning immensely.
Five kilometres later I am crossing the border out of South Australia and into Victoria. I am now officially in Australia’s eastern states and back on Australian Eastern Standard Time. Not that I will notice the half hour time difference because my day is now ruled by the sunlight hours, rather than my watch.
My map shows the Mallee Highway as being dotted with lots of small towns all the way east Ouyen. Fortunately, I have traveled enough in Australia to know that small dots don’t mean anything. As is proved when I come across the first of these “towns” and notice that it is little more than a railway siding with a huge grain silo. It reminds me of the grain belt in Queensland where Dad and I cycled past similar silos on our way from Birdsville to Brisbane a decade ago. Then the silos meant we were almost home. Now they mean I still have a long way to go.
The Mallee Highway is busy with trucks heading between the Murraylands and Sydney. They still have 1,100km (685 miles) to travel and some will need to be there overnight or tomorrow morning so they are fair hiking it along. These are not small trucks. These are big rigs with long trailers. They hoik along at 110kph. The lanes painted onto the road are barely wide enough to accommodate these monsters so I stop in the gravel when I hear them coming. The truckies wave at me as they drive by, perhaps respecting that I am sensible about sharing the road; after-all these blokes (for all the truckies I saw today were men) are just trying to put bread on the table and it’s a tough way to earn a dollar.
I feel happy as I ride today. The road surface is good. There’s not a cloud in the sky yet it’s not yet hot. And the trees are stunning. The mallee gums have grey-green leaves with red tips on the new growth. The wattles are starting to bloom, filling the air with a delicous sweet scent. Birds chirp in the trees, drinking their fill of the sweet nectar that comes from the blooms as larger birds of prey hunt mice in the broadacre. It’s a good day to be out on a bike here in the mallee.
I arrive in Murrayville to find the town awash with knitting bombs. The park bench and Mrs Pink Lady strike me as particularly creative and fun. Even the signpost outside the police station has been stitched up in blue and white checks. Someone has gone to a lot of effort and it’s a wonderful sight. After asking directions and buying an ice cream I walk my bike up the hill (I didn’t feel like riding because I was too busy enjoying my ice cream) to the caravan park. This is one of the best I have stayed at so far. It’s a large grassy area with some trees for summer shade. There are hot showers, BBQs and power points all for $9.90 a night. I leave a tenner in the honesty box, sign the guest book, do a little bit of work, have a yarn with my caravaning neighbours and a local, and then head down to the pub for the biggest but best cooked piece of steak I’ve had in a long time. The grub is great and I go to bed content and ready for tomorrow’s 80km push across the Victorian Outback to Walpeup.
After a solid 11 hour sleep I wake feeling a little anxious about the 72km ride to Pinnaroo across the middle of nowhere. Intellectually I know that I can ride 72km without any problems. I mean, last year I cycled 100km every day for 31 days while still going to work and university. But somehow this feels different. I am pushing a bicycle that weighs 65kg, which is 87% of my total body weight. I still have some anxieties about my legitimacy as a cycle tourer. I am a little worried because my Hb count has gone back up to 178 when it should be below 174 and this was what caused my mini stroke (TIA) in February but there’s nothing I can do about it out here. I want to enjoy this experience, not ride long distances every day. The anxiety is an important lesson because it shows that I need to select my ride destinations and routes to suit my more laid back approach. While I a enjoying the long bush roads, I definitely would prefer to be cycling in areas where there are interesting towns or places to explore every 25-40km. In future, I will probably use a motorbike to explore more remote areas. This is an important part of my process at this formative stage of my life as a nomad. And I realise I don’t need to feel guilty or anything for being less hardcore than others’ whose journeys I follow.
That’s not to say I don’t appreciate and enjoy my ride through the mallee. When you travel slowly out here you see the subtle changes. There’s long mallee plains.
There’s red soil and bright green broadacre farms.
Crops grow in various stages. Some green and some a golden brown.
Colour contrasts abound.
And bright yellow canola crops glow bright under the woolly gray skies.
I get into a rhythm where I ride 10km then stop to eat and read a chapter of my book. At most stops I just eat snacks like nuts, fruit, crackers and cheese. But I do have a fantastic curry with rice for lunch. I enjoy this rhythm because it forces me to take in my surrounds and because I love the experience of being in the fresh air. Sitting out here in the red dirt is a fantastic experience.
Big country calls for big machinery and massive buildings. It’s pretty impressive to see. I can only imagine how the pioneers using the tools I saw in the museum yesterday would love to have such huge tools and reliable sheds to farm crop out here.
At the end of the day I reach Pinnaroo. The town has a shop, bakery, caravan park, quite a few houses, two road houses and a motel that also has cabins. I’m fatigued and still feeling a bit off. While I’ve had a good day, fatigue is getting the better of me. I buy some sweets at the bakery and some junk at the supermarket before checking into a cabin at the motel for the night. It’s worth every cent to have a comfortable bed, private shower, television and heater. I get a heap of work done and sleep well. It’s now the next morning and I am remembering why I’m out here. For the next few days I will cycle east to the Murray at Swan Hill before I resume a slow pace and might even hire a car to head to the snow to spend a few days skiing before I head home for my birthday. Odd how a bit of comfort can make you see the wood for the trees.
From Berri I have two choices: travel east towards Mildura along the busy Sturt Highway or travel south across the mallee towards Pinanaroo along the narrow but quieter B road. Despite it being slightly further, I opt for the latter option because I do not fancy spending the next couple of days being blown off the road by interstate trucks and caravans. And so I find myself crossing the River Murray’s flood plains watching birds of prey hunting their breakfasts.
About 15km (10 miles) from Berri a beautiful old church stands on the side of the road marking the location of a town that has long gone. This is something I am becoming accustomed to seeing out here in the bush: towns die but the old churches remain. You can tell a lot about a region’s heritage by looking at the denominations of the churchs. Back in the Mid North around Burra, the churches were all either squat Anglican or tall-spired Catholic buildings, showing that the English and Irish were probably the dominant cultures who settled the land there. But here the churches are castle-like Lutheran structures, showing a strong Germanic influence on the area. Even in previous travels, I have noticed the way churches were built to outlast their communities; you can see how close together townships once were before the motor car allowed people to travel over 100km in an hour.
I stop at the Loxton Historical Village, which I have heard is interesting. It certainly doesn’t disappoint and is well worth the $12.50 entry fee. There are over 40 historic buildings including a general store, post office, cobbler, barber, newspaper office, railway station and cottages. Each is set up to reflect the period to which it relates and there is a character who starts “speaking” when you enter the building, telling you the stories of days gone by. In addition to the buildings, there are all manner of machinery, including cars, sulkies, tractors and agricultural equipment. The whole village gives a fantastic insight into the history of the district and how hard life must have been.
There’s also some opportunities to play. I “drive” a steam train and pose for a photo “with” Loxton, the founder of the town.
From Loxton the river bends back north so I leave it and continue traveling south. The road is narrow but the traffic is moderate. The wind is blowing from the south so I get into a rhythm of looking behind every so often to check for trucks and caravans in case I don’t hear them. The gravel beside the road is mostly in good condition so I duck off when trucks and caravans come from behind or when a car is coming and it’s too dangerous for them to overtake safely. While the law requires the vehicles to slow down and pass me safely, the reality is that they are traveling at over 110kph and I’m only crawling along at 15kph. I’m not stupid enough to think the drivers are alert and attentive either. Many will be driving for 8-10 hours eveyr day through landscape that is mundane to them. So I prefer self-preservation over the agro of cyclists’ rights. And it works wonders on the relationship I create with the other road users. Truck drivers actually wave and a drivers talk to me in towns along the way thanking me for sharing the road and criticising other cyclists who wear dark coloured clothing or don’t seem to realise how narrow the roads here are.
The sun is shining so the flowers bloom along the side of the road. It makes me feel happy to see the flowers’ colourful faces smiling up at me. On a long tough day in the saddle it makes a difference to the way I feel. Before long I am rolling off the road into the tiny camping area at Paruna, a town that is so small it doesn’t even have a shop or school anymore. I pitch my tent, pay my $10, take a long hot shower and cook a meal in the shelter of the picnic hut. There is no internet or phone service here so I am asleep by 7:30pm.
I woke to the sound of birds singing and the sun shining. All my gear had dried overnight under the shelter of the marquee and I could walk around without my feet getting wet. I looked around the beer garden and thought this place must be a great place to hang out in the spring when the weather is warm but not yet hot. After packing my gear I was on the road by 8:30am and enjoying the views over the River Murray that were blocked by yesterday’s rain. It was beautiful to look out over the flats below the cliffs that I was steadily climbing. Back on the highway I stopped at the Overland Corner Cemetary where gravestones told the stories of the pioneers of this part of the world. Across the road was a view out over the hotel and river so I stopped to cook up a breakfast of eggs with zucchinni and romano cheese followed by bananas fried in butter and sugar served with custard. As I sat there the sun disappeared, a cold wind picked up and gray clouds blanketed the world.
I rugged up and set off down the road. Before long I turned off the highway towards Bamara and came to the Loch Luna and Bonney Lake. The lakes are huge and I am sure that Bourke and Wills probably would have fallen over their tongues thinking they were the mythical inland sea they sought. Small waves were lapping against the shores of Bonney Lake, making it seem a little menacing in the winter cold. I was definitely not tempted to pull out the packraft though it would be a great place to paddle on a sunny day.
In Bamera the lake looked much more beautiful due to both the jetty and being on the side where the wind was blowing from. I stopped for a rest and to imagine how many laughing people would have jumped off and swum around the jetty on warm summer days.
The Riverland where I am riding is one of Australia’s big wine and fruit growing areas. When I wasn’t riding through mallee scrub or between lakes, vines and citrus trees lined the roads. Just about everyone here works in agriculture or to support it. Fruit picking, vine pruning, potato or onion farming, wine making and automotive work seem to be the big employers. Despite the labour intensive agricultural industry, unemployment is said to be high due to the seasonal and physical nature of the work. It’s a story told over and over again across many parts of rural and regional Australia.
Fruit stalls lined the road between Bamera and Berri. Some are retail stands while others are run by growers. I happened to stop at a pretty stall run by a grower who was proud of her produce.
I bought a big bag of mandarins despite not having enough space to carry them in my panniers. So I found a new use for the touring bars and rode the final 6km to camp with the mandarins resting on the bars. I reached camp at about midday and enjoyed my first hot shower in four days. I am learning that I am not a roughing it kind of guy; I like a hot shower every few days and the comforts of a camp kitchen where I can sit comfortably at a table to write blog posts and do some work. I spent the afternoon eating lunch near the River Murray, reading a book in the sun at camp and taking an afternoon nap.
Cold and wet. They are the only words to describe the ride from Waikerie to Overland Corner. The rain pelted down as I rode into the headwind, leaving me looking and feeling like a drowned rat. Normally I would prefer to sit it out but I need to be in Melbourne by 6 September to fly home for my birthday so I took a tablespoon of cement and hardened myself up.
The scenery was pretty enough and I only had 40km to ride to get to the Historic Overland Corner Hotel, which I had heard so much about. As I rode I found myself daydreaming of a warm log fire, hot food and some country hospitality. It passed the miles away quite nicely as I rode through the mallee country. I barely even took my usual 10-15km rest stops because the call of warmth was so strong. I still enjoyed the ride but, like most people, I do prefer blue skies and sunshine.
And then, like manna from heaven, it materialised. It started with a sign stating that the pub was just 3km up the road. And then an arrow pointing off the road towards said pub. And then, as I rolled down a long gentle slope, there it was … The Historic Overland Corner Hotel. I could smell the deliciously warm smell of chimney smoke before I saw it and made a beeline straight for the building. It was all I could do not to just dump my bike on its side and bust into the warmth of the public bar but I contained myself and propped it gently against a post in the beer garden before walking inside soaking wet. Oh it was so warm and cozy and friendly in the pub. I knew instantly that this would be one of the highlights of my trip.
I ordered a drink and Phil (the publican) offered to let me pitch my tent outside under a marquee so that I would be dry and comfortable for the night. And so began a delightful afternoon and evening of food, drink and conversation (only soft drink for me though because I am mostly a tee totaller). I can report that the open BLT with chips is delicous and the hamburger is one of the best you’ll taste anywhere. Throughout the afternoon locals and a few travelers came through the doors into the small bar to warm themselves, have a drink, share a yarn and move on. There is a wonderful Dutch word “gezelig” that I personally think is one of the highest compliments anyone can give to a host and “gezelig” is exactly what the Historic Overland Corner Hotel is. I don’t often recommend places, but if you are in the area or want an excuse to go up to the Riverlands, check it out because it’s definitely a winner.
After listeining to hoons doing donuts outside my tent late into the night, I woke to gray skies and cold weather. With a couple of university assignments due in mid-September I decided the best option for the day was to try to find somewhere warm and dry to do some work instead of moving on. I had heard from the visitor centre in Morgan that Waikerie was a very nice town. Personally, I found the town a bit rough and unfriendly compared to river towns in the Murraylands. But at least there was a powerpoint outside the library in the cold where I could plub in to work (without sun I couldn’t charge my devices any other way) with my fingers slowly turning blue. The council officer I spoke with said that they don’t like backpackers hanging out inside the public library so they have opted to cover all indoor powerpoints and only allow charging of devices outside.
After a long day behind the keyboard (and making good progress on my university studies) I changed camp to stay along the river on the other side of town. The camp was okay and there were no hoons overnight. But before I bedded down I unpacked my packraft and spent a lovely half hour unwinding on the River Murray, just drifting around and dipping in the paddles every now and then for some very slow propulsion. It was the highlight of an otherwise businesslike day. If you are traveling the Murray, I would recommend against bothering with Waikerie. Stop in Morgan or at any town down in the Muraylands instead. They are much more beautiful and friendly.
Mmmm. The great Aussie steak pie. It was exactly what the doctor ordered this morning for breakfast. Well, I’m not sure any doctor in their right mind would be happy with me eating a steak pie for breakfast. But hey, fantasy island is a lovely place to live sometimes. Anyway, I could have done crackers with cheese or two-minute noodles with tuna or even bought a bread roll. But the blokes outside the bakery seemed to be enjoying their meat pies so much I couldn’t resist.
I retraced my steps of a few weeks ago by cycling from Morgan towards Cadell. This was the road where I had such strong headwinds on my last tour. And would you believe it, the wind has turned and is now blowing strongly from the south-east so I had headwinds again. Not gale force winds like last time but still a stiff breeze that forced me to get my quads cranking.
As I’ve probably mentioned way too often, I love this open saltbush country. While it would be nice to have something to block the wind, being able to see for miles is awesome. I rode about 15km from town then stopped, took this obligatory jumping for joy photo then sat down between the saltbush to read my book.
Farther down the road the landscape changes. The soil turns red and mallee scrub springs up around me. I stop at a rest area. Stuart and Barb from Packenham in Victoria stop there too. They have been traveling Western Australia in their caravan for the past three months. They boil the kettle and invite me to join them for a cup of tea and some cake. They tell me about where they’ve been and ask me where I’m headed. I enjoy the yarn before we set off again on our separate adventures.
Not far from where I met Stuart and Barb is Lock 2. This is the second Lock from the Murray’s mouth. The water is flowing quickly over the weir and there are no boats waiting to use the lock. The lock has a fish ramp to allow fish to travel up and down the river. I don’t know how many fish make it successfully through the ramp though, what with all the pelicans and commerants waiting to eat them. The pelicans fly up close to the weir, dropping into the turbulent water before drifting downstream a short distance and then repeating the process. Some are braver than others; flying right up to the weir wall. A couple of pelicans are more like me – they look too scared to enter the turbulent water and instead bob outside the safety rope.
Lock 2 also signals another change in the landscape. I leave the mallee behind and enter the Riverlands fruit and wine region. Huge vineyards battle with massive citrus farms for prime real estate. The vines here are different to those in the Barossa, Clare and Fleurieu. They look wilder, taller and more gnarly. Perhaps it’s the variety or just a reflection on how harsh this river country is. The citrus is in the middle of being picked. Everywhere there are signs saying “No work” and many of the trees are just green blobs. But others are beautiful with their branches heaving with great orange globes. They grow it all here: oranges, mandarins and grapefruit.
And then I arrive at the river itself. A short ferry ride takes me into Waikerie. It’s a larger town than most with two supermarkets (Woolworths and Foodland), two bottle shops, a petrol station, a good number of houses spread around and a public library. The citrus and wine must be ensuring this town is still flourishing while so many of the river towns I passed on my earlier trip are dying. There’s a commercial caravan park but it doesn’t look attractive. The free (and legal) riverside camping, on the other hand, is wonderful. I pull up an cook toasted ham and cheese sandwiches for lunch in the afternoon sun before pitching my room with a view.
As the sun sets I feel content. Though I don’t enjoy the sounds of local yobs doing donuts in their cars. Fortunatley, by around 10:30pm the hoons seems to have left (they didn’t hang around – they’d just come down, do some donuts and leave). Tomorrow I will probably stay here. I have a university assignment that I need to start writing. Hopefully the sun is out though so I can charge my devices.
For today though, I’ll leave you with this image of me cycling along these quiet country roads enjoying life.