Friday, December 10, 2010

Chapter 1 - Desert Folly

Hans and Andrew had been cycling for days in the heat and they were exhausted. Every vehicle that passed them kicked up more red dust, which was caked on their faces and up their noses. Sweat dripped down Andrew’s forehead, and as the foamy support pad in his cheap bike helmet was no longer absorbing the moisture. It made its way slowly down his face and to the tip of his nose. He tried to focus on pedalling, but by now, pedalling was just like breathing, it happened automatically. He wiped away the droplets on his face with his glove, and free of distraction, he went back to daydreaming about steak sandwiches and icecream. The best thing about pedalling all day to get somewhere – you could eat whatever you wanted. Fat, salt and sugar were part of the required diet. He focussed for a while on Hans. Hans liked to ride in front, as he tended to set a faster pace than Andrew. Maybe it was his propensity to daydream that made him slower. Hans was riding with his head down. It seemed to Andrew that he was looking at his bike computer – probably calculating in his head exactly how far we had to go and how long it would take. Hans was a sucker for numbers. Andrew didn't care much for them. He thought that numbers sapped the pure unadulterated joy of cycling, and took your focus away from your surroundings. Why else would you choose to move so slowly through the landscape, when you could drive, or just fly over the top of it to reach your destination?

They were riding into a burning, dry wind, which felt like an invisible hand, retarding their progress just for fun. It put Hans in one of his more pessimistic moods. Someone in Sydney had told them they should have done it the other way round – flew in to Perth and cycled to the East coast, because the prevailing winds across the country were West to East, but the timing would have been all wrong if they had planned it that way. Hans was angry with himself because he didn’t do the research. He was slightly envious of Andrew, who was happy just to plod along and wasn't worried about average speeds. The longer they were on the road, the more it was confirmed to them that they were going the wrong way, because they had met many people along the road who were cycling in the opposite direction – they were going with the wind.

Hans did have his head down, but he wasn't staring at the LCD numbers ticking away on the display of his computer. He was trying to duck out of the wind just a little and was thinking about riding a sub 9 kilogram carbon fibre wonder bike with drop bars. He imagined the bike, light and stiff, accelerating willingly with the turn of the pedals. The fantasy didn't last long as he began to hear an ominous groaning sound, which was coming from the crank of his bike as his right foot came down – they were about 80 kilometres from the next town and the next water stop, and they couldn’t really afford another delay in order to repair his ailing machine. He narrowed his eyes , head still tucked down, looking down at the chain, as if he could detect the source of the unsettling noise just by looking. There had been no catastrophes so far and he did not want that to change today.

“Hey, Hans,” Andrew disrupted his train of thought, “look up for a sec, there's more cyclists headed our way.”

Hans scanned the oncoming lane and saw two older looking fellows riding some strange looking bikes. It looked like someone had put the wheels in the clothes dryer and they had shrunk.

“They're on folders!” Andrew exclaimed as they got closer.

“What? Why would you want a folding bike out here?” Hans turned slightly to direct his voice back over his shoulder.

“Just wave,” Andrew was smiling.

“Sure,” Hans waved his hand in greeting, and the two older gentleman on folding bicycles returned the gesture.

“Maybe they are locals, they don't seem to be carrying much.”

“No way,” Hans rolled his eyes, purely for his own entertainment as all Andrew could see was the back of his helmet, “they are probably just minimalists, you know, we have seen plenty of people on the road that seem to live on a few millilitres of water and some crumbs while sleeping under the stars and with only one change of clothes!”

There were some colourful characters in the desert, and Hans marvelled at just how many crazy old coots there were in this country. Most of them were born and bred Aussies who decided they needed to escape their workaday lives, or wanted to do something mad as soon as they retired. They met a guy who was making the crossing pushing a wheelbarrow, just because he could, and an older couple from Darwin riding recumbent bicycles, which looked very comfortable – kind of like pedalling while lying in a poolside banana lounge. They even came across a mad Welshman with outrageous red hair who was riding a bright yellow fibreglass skateboard and had a caravan of support crew following him in ancient and roughly converted campervans. Hans was secretly jealous of the Welshman, as he seemed to be coping with the heat a lot better than they were. Hans and Andrew were from Switzerland and the heat should not have been as much of a shock as it was – they had both spent many days in Zurich where the temperature climbed into the high 30s, but the Australian heat seemed different – more intense. A barman along the way did his best to convince the boys that the intensity of the heat came about because the hole in the Ozone layer – which was caused by the wonton carelessness of the entire western world - was directly overhead. He thought that Australia was being forced to pay for the world’s mistake. Hans was convinced that it was the result of the sparse vegetation over much of the country – there were no trees, and there was no water. He wondered how anyone could have etched out an existence in a land so harsh and longed to know more about the indigenous people who lived here as hunter gatherers until the English colonisers tried to wipe out their race, their culture and their lifestyle with their guns and their diseases.

Hans was gazing ahead at the seemingly endless stretch of road, thinking about how unique it was, cycling in Australia of all places. It was really the ultimate adventure. The road was shared courteously between massive trucks hauling 3 or 4 trailers which could be up to 19 metres long, and a collection of ramshackle human powered vehicles. There were also campervans driven by young backpackers like himself and Andrew, but his own feelings were most divided by the 'grey nomads'. They were kind, for sure, but sometimes their driving was unpredictable. He started thinking about the 'grey nomads' who they had met a few days ago. They had overtaken a little too close, and then pulled over on the soft gravel highway shoulder in order to offer them cold cans of soft drink. The 'grey nomads' were retirees who often had bumper stickers that read 'spending my children's inheritance'. They often drove large station wagons or four wheel drives, towing large and comfortable looking caravans. They had refrigeration, showers and all the other modern conveniences. Their questions were often repetitive but the cold soft drink was worth answering a few. They were also always willing to offer water if you were caught short and ran out.

Hans was wrapped up remembering how good that cold aluminium felt against his lips when he had opened the can. His front wheel hit a large, red rock, which for no apparent reason was lying on the shoulder of the highway. It was a shuddering return to reality.

Andrew, who had been drafting Hans for the last 20 kilometres, had to break heavily and locked up his rear wheel as Hans came to a sudden stop – the wheel buckling and jamming against his front fork. The bike would have bucked Hans over the handlebars, if it weren’t for the heavily laden trailer he was towing, which held the bike steady. Instead, Hans’ weight shifted forward, and before he could stop himself, he slipped forward off his seat and landed squarely on the black, hot, dusty metal of the bike’s frame. He yelped as his balls were crushed against the unforgiving frame, and barely had enough presence of mind to put his foot on the sweltering asphalt to steady himself.

Hans swore in German. Although he spoke at least four languages, German had all of his favourite profanities, with the possible exception of the English word, fuck, which he was also very fond of using in situations such as these. He heaved his leg over the bike awkwardly and crab walked to the side of the road, clutching his injured balls and making a huge racket. Andrew stood by, waiting for the situation to ease before he dared make any suggestions as to what they might do now, with a busted bike in the middle of nowhere. Punctures were easy to fix in the open, but buckled wheels were not. Hans just wanted to lie down, but the landscape was rocky and red, the only vegetation was harsh and prickly, and numerous mounds of dirt alerted him to the presence of swarms of massive, cruel biting bull ants, so he continued to stand, buckled over, as the pain began to subside slightly.

Andrew offered Hans his water bottle, which Hans refused, he then walked around to the front of the damaged bicycle and inspected it – a couple of the spokes had snapped and the wheel was off kilter. They probably had 60 kilometres until their next water stop, and they didn’t have a lot of water left.

“I think I can fix it, do you know where you packed the spokes and the spoke wrench?” Hans was still grimacing and shifting his weight from one foot to the other.

“Maybe we can just let the brakes out a bit and take it slow,” Andrew suggested, “that way we can make it to the water stop and hopefully find someone who can get us some new spokes and help us straighten out the wheel”.

Hans grimaced and hobbled towards his stricken bicycle, “actually, I think I’m done riding today, Andrew,” he looked at the sad looking wheel, “anyway, there's no way I'm going to try to ride with a load and only a rear brake, I won't be able to stop. The road trains have been scary enough, I don't want to deal with them without brakes. I think we should just camp here and set off again in the morning, and hopefully some kindly hippies in a VW will pull over and maybe give us a lift.”

“OK,” said Andrew, rubbing his chin, “you’re the boss, but we can’t really count on a lift for both of us – we have bikes and trailers, only someone in a van or a big four wheel drive with room to spare would be able to pick us up. I might have to keep on riding and let you get a lift.”

“If that’s what we have to do, we’ll do it,” Hans started to drag his bike off the road, “we’ll just have to find a nice flat spot to set up now.”

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