Now that I am back home and finally have enough time and a good enough internet connection, I decided to provide a more detailed summary of my epic bicycle journey across New South Wales, Australia. This may be considered a “teaser” for what I hope to be another ebook, like the two others I have helped write, assuming I have the time and inclination to devote to such an undertaking in the near future.
This ride was to be my first solo bike tour, as my touring buddy, Jason, was unable to go due to the fact that he was in the process of moving to Denver to take on a new teaching gig. This was also to be my first time to Australia, made a bit easier by the fact that Ashley, my college roommate from Georgia Tech, was living there with his wife, Mary Beth, in Sydney. I had committed to them when they moved there ~3 years ago that I would come see them. That and having my wife agree that I could also make a cycling tour out of the trip was all I needed to get the wheels rolling (no pun intended) on making a trip to OZ happen! It is worth noting that since I turn 50 this year, Hygie (my great wife), used her gazillion frequent flyer miles to get me a free airline ticket from Atlanta to Sydney as a birthday present. Not bad!
Prologue: Apart from picking me and my huge bike box up at the airport, as well as giving me a couple of days to shake-off the jet-lag, staying at Ashley & Mary Beth’s place was a great way for me to acclimate to the new surroundings – including cold weather and driving on the “wrong” side of the road! – and secure the final things I needed for the ride (fuel for my camp stove, detailed maps, Australian cash, a local phone, etc.). It also allowed me to get a brief taste of the incredible city of Sydney – one you must see, if you have not done so already!
Anyway, after assembling and checking “The Mighty One,” verifying my Que sheets were in order (remember that I am old school and don’t use a GPS), I was ready to begin what was admittedly a scary proposition of heading out on my own, into a section of a foreign country where I had never been before – carrying everything I might need on my bike. But wait…that’s what makes the sport of cycle touring so much fun and so very rewarding! Here goes…
Day 1 (29-Jun-14): To avoid heavy traffic around the metropolitan Sydney area (especially since it was school holidays for all of New South Wales), I took the NSW trainlink from Sydney to Broadmeadow and after some initial confusion regarding where to meet, I was able to get to my WarmShowers hosts’ place. There, I was able to have a great evening meal of pasta and enjoy a nice nighttime walk to the beach with the four dogs my hosts were keeping at the time. This also included my first introduction to Southern Hemisphere constellations (I had been to New Zealand before, but was clueless about such things at the time) and my finally being able to see the Southern Cross!
Day 2 started with a nice walk to the beach to see the sunrise, a great breakfast, and then a relatively easy ride along the Fernleigh Track (http://newcastlecycleways.org.au/on-your-bike/fernleigh-track) to get to Newcastle. My WarmShowers host was gracious enough to ride with me all the way as well! From there I took the short ferry ride across the Hunter River to Stockton and was able to make my way via back roads and the B63 highway to Nelson Bay, where I had big lunch of fish & chips at the ferry service on Victoria Parade. As I was waiting for the last ferry ride across to Hawks Nest (3 pm), I noticed that my front wheel was flat and fixed it as Chinese tourists watched me and took photos for some strange reason (this turned out to be the only “puncture” of my entire trip!).
It was very windy with rough seas and thankfully, the ferry’s captain allowed me to put my bike inside the boat’s main cabin. By the time we reached Hawks Nest it was 4 pm and the sun would be going down soon! I quickly made my way to Mungo Bush Rd and after passing a couple of closed campsites, eventually found a place in Myall Lakes National Park where I could set-up my tent. Nevertheless, I was cooking dinner by my headlamp! My campsite was also Grand Central Station for critters, as I heard rustling and scampering all night long!
Day 3 started with another great sunrise over the Tasman Sea and what this time was a deserted beach. It was as if I was the only person in the world! I continued the ride north along Mungo Bush Rd., but rather than taking the longer, smoother, and hillier ride toward Bulahdelah, I opted for the route suggested in Ian Duckworth’s “Cycling Australia” (http://www.amazon.com/Cycling-Australia-Bicycle-Throughout-Continent/dp/0933201761) via the Old Gibber Fire Trail to Seal Rocks. As predicted, it was rough going in some places, but overall was a nice ride with zero traffic. After splurging for a big lunch of local fare at a roadside stand in Bungwahl, I made my way along The Lakes Way to Coomba Rd. up to Coomba Park. This was a really nice ride, through rolling hills and rural countryside along the lake. I stayed in the sleepy town of Coomba Park for the evening with a very nice couple originally from England. This is also where I saw my first kangaroos and got to see many of Australia’s birds up-close! After a dinner of barramundi, my hosts and I sat by their nice fire for a long, evening chat, before turning in. This is also one of the few places where I was able to get enough internet strength to Skype Hygie, taking into account the significant time difference between me in Australia and her in North Carolina.
Day 4 began with another pre-dawn walk, but this time along the shore of Wallis Lake. After a great, traditional English breakfast by my hosts, I rode back down Coomba Rd. to rejoin The Lakes Way toward Forester and Tuncurry, including a really nice stretch with the Tasman Sea on one side and Wallis Lake on the other (http://www.nationalparks.nsw.gov.au/booti-booti-national-park). After Forester The Lakes Way was not so nice, however. It was on this section that I had my first real experience with lots of large trucks, high speed limits, and narrow to no shoulders – not fun for a cyclist! I toughed it out until I was able to turn at Hallidays Point on Blackhead Rd. and then to Diamond Beach, where my next WarmShowers hosts lived. The cool thing was that my hosts had seen me earlier in the day on Coomba Rd. and then again on Diamond Beach Rd., so they stopped and gave me specific directions to their place. The huge amount of pizza they made that night was greatly appreciated after the day’s long and hilly ride! My hosts were a family originally from Germany and were building a really cool house on a large, rural track of land just 2 km from the beach. We were able to stay up late and discuss how Australia was similar to and different from the U.S. and Europe!
Day 5 started with a huge breakfast by my hosts and then a nice ride from Diamond Beach to the Pacific Highway via the Old Soldier’s Rd – an unpaved road through the rural countryside. From there it was a long day of riding on the A1/Pacific Highway with wide shoulders (good) next to heavy holiday traffic and long semi trucks (bad) until I reached Harrington Rd. I then rode out to Harrington, a nice sea-side village with a beautiful overlook of the mouth of the Manning River. After a late lunch, I rode ~8 km along Crowdy St. to a very steep climb up to Crowdy Head Lighthouse. After some great views of my first whale sightings, I made it back to Crowdy Bay National Park and eventually found an open campsite. It was there that I met-up with the first other cycle tourists I had seen (or would see) on my trip! They were just getting ready to start dinner as I happened to pull-up looking for a campsite. I found one next to them and enjoyed a wonderful evening of sharing cycle touring experiences before a restful night in my tent.
Day 6: July 4th – Independence Day for a Yank Down Under! I was able to resume my sunrise walks on the beach for what promised to be yet another beautiful “winter” morning! A bit chilly, but clear, with a heavy dew. After enjoying a cold breakfast of a Power Bar, hard cheese, and harder bread, I rode with my new cycling friends to Larieton along the Crowdy Bay National Park road. As was the case the day before, we found it to be very wash-boarded (corrugated as the Aussies say). This caused on of my rear rack nuts to keep coming loose. Fortunately, I was able to find a friendly mate at Larieton Cycles (http://www.laurieton-cycles.com.au/) to set me up with a new bolt and nut for free! That, along with a bit of Loctite cured that problem for good! The rest of the ride was along Ocean Drive up to Port Macquarie, where I found a cool and relatively inexpensive B&B directly across from Sea Acres Nature Reserve (http://www.beachportbnb.com.au/). This was also my first paid accommodation in Australia! I took advantage of my early arrival to venture over to the famous Koala Hospital (http://www.koalahospital.org.au/), as well as find a place on the water in Port Macquarie to toast the 4th and enjoy a large meal of pasta with seafood!
Day 7: I was able to enjoy a nice, fat B&B breakfast before heading over to take a look at Sea Acres in more detail (this was, of course, after a pre-dawn walk out to the beach to see another sunrise over the Tasman Sea!) I found my way out of Port Mac to Settlement Point and took the free ferry over to Shoreline Dr. and then to Maria River Rd. (caution to other cycle tourists: do NOT take Point Polmar Rd., as it becomes very sandy and thus unsuitable for a loaded touring bike). After ~33 km and lots of bone-jarring washboard action, the road finally became paved again and I eventually made it to Crescent Head, where I picked up some bread, cheese, and olives for a nice pic-nick lunch while watching some world-class surfing! This was followed by lots of small, winding roads alongside farms and the Belmore River and Macleay River until the last 11 km along Hat Head road to Hat Head, where I found my WarmShowers hosts.
Day 8: Rest day in Hat Head! My hosts fed me a great, traditional Aussie breakfast and then we set-out for a long walk along the headlands of Hat Head National Park (http://www.nationalparks.nsw.gov.au/hat-head-national-park), where we were able to see lots of whales, ‘roos, birds, and stunning views of the NSW coastline! It turns out that my hosts were both retired educators, so we were able to spend many hours discussing the problems and successes of public education in Australia and America. This was also a day when I was able to clean my bike and clean some clothes – something any cycling tourist knows is a special treat!
Day 9: Rather than ride all the way back out to Kinchela, my hosts suggested I try riding the “shortcut” of ~15 km from Hat Head to Southwest Rocks along the beach. We timed it perfectly so that the tide was low and the sand was firm enough to support my bike and gear. This was perhaps the most enchanting portion of my entire cycling tour of Australia! Apart from a few soft sections where I had to push the bike for 20 meters or so, and some sand I needed to wash off at the end, it was an absolutely perfect ride. This was followed by a grueling (but worth it!) climb up to the lighthouse at Southwest Rocks and a short side trip over to the historic Trial Bay Goal, which had been a German interment camp during the First World War (http://www.nationalparks.nsw.gov.au/Arakoon-National-Park/Trial-Bay-Gaol/tourist-information).
The rest of the ride into Scotts Head was either back on the busy A1/Pacific Highway (where I had a truck stop lunch – baaad idea) or on some hilly back roads like Grassy Head Rd. As was the case for much of the ride, several of these “quiet back roads” were anything but due to holiday traffic, including frequent “caravans” (what Americans call cars driven by bad drivers towing a camper). The kicker for this ride, however, was was the last 0.5 km steep climb up to my WarmShowers hosts’ house! These hosts, like all the ones before and after, were great! One was even originally from the U.S., so we had lots to discuss over another huge dinner (the other bonus of staying with WarmShowers hosts is that because most are cycle tourists themselves, they know the amount of food you need to replace your fuel stores after a long day of riding).
Day 10 started with a pre-dawn walk on the beach with one of my hosts and an incredibly healthy and filling breakfast (including Vegemite). My hosts were also able to suggest an alternative route to minimize the time I needed to spend on the Pacific Highway, which was under major construction in the area north of Macksville (Rodeo Dr. to Wirrimbi Rd. to Old Coast Rd.). These were generally low traffic, although some sections were 100 kph and no shoulder – the rationale behind dual flashers and a large neon & orange warning triangle on the back of my bike! The Pacific Highway ride from Nabucca Heads to the Old Pacific Highway at Raleigh (check that out, fellow North Carolinians!) was also unpleasant, with the shoulder disappearing in some sections and the construction areas with constantly changing road conditions and hazards. One has to be completely focused in such an environment, watching the road ahead, checking the mirror, and keeping a predictable line so that traffic can see and adjust to your presence – i.e. not for the faint hearted! The OPH ride was much quieter, although traffic did pick-up the closer I got to Coffs Harbour. Fortunately, I was staying with CouchSurfing hosts in Bonville, south of town.
My Bonville hosts were very gracious and given the tough ride of that day, insisted that I stay for two nights. The fact that their “couch” was a stand-along bungalow and a separate shower house, with an adjoining garden full of citrus trees (including Mandarin oranges) made the decision quite easy! After a much needed shower, we all headed to the pub in Coffs Harbour for dinner and an Aussie tradition of “trivia night.” Their trivia team, with my help, came in second place for the evening – it was quite entertaining and a great way to meet lots of cool people (it was also the first time I’d been in a car in 2 weeks!)
Day 11: Rest Day! Thanks to my host, the day was spent touring the beautiful area in and around Coffs Harbour, including vistas from Forest Sky Pier, touring a rain forest and eucalyptus forest in the Bruxner Park Flora Reserve (http://www.coffscoast.com.au/bruxner-park-flora-reserve), Muttonbird Island Nature Reserve (http://www.nationalparks.nsw.gov.au/muttonbird-island-nature-reserve), a very tasty lunch at a really cool bike shop/cafe in Sawtell (http://www.splitcafe.com.au/), and walking along Sawtell Beach – yet another gem on the NSW coastline. Oh…and of course, the Big Banana! We also stopped by the Fisherman’s Co-op and picked-up seafood, as I promised my hosts that I would cook Creole Jambalaya for dinner – one of my specialties. I also talked my host into our getting smoked, local octopus, which turned out to be quite tasty!
I was also able to spend time cleaning, inspecting, and adjusting my bike – something I had been neglecting. On every long-distance cycling tour, there are days where your body screams at you to just stop and rest. Thankfully I had listened, and between the exceptional accommodations, grounds, food, and friendship I developed with my hosts, this rest day was just what the Doctor ordered for me to recharge my physical and mental toughness to finish this great ride.
Day 12 was one of the few times on my trip that I really got a taste of the Southern Hemisphere winter! Although the temperature was a bit chilly in Bonville, by the time I was at the pass above Coffs Harbour on Coramba Rd, it had dropped into the 30s (degrees F that is) and made the fast, downhill ride into Karangi quite cold indeed. In fact, I had to stop at a petrol station and get some bad coffee just to get some feeling back into my numb fingers! The ride this day promised to be long and straight, along the undulating hills between Coffs Harbour and Grafton. I was taking the less traveled Coramba Rd. and Orara Way essentially due north as an alternative to the Pacific Highway. There was significantly less traffic as I rode inland away from the coast, although the road had no shoulders and was essentially 100 kph for most of the way. It also had sections where the pavement edges were quite damaged, with large potholes and steep drop-offs, but was certainly the lesser of two evils, considering my bad experiences on the A1. There were several small towns along the first half of the ride, including Glenreagh, where I stopped for a mid-morning snack and espresso. After Glenreagh, however, there was only one petrol station (closed for the Grafton Cup horse race) until I was essentially in South Grafton, ~45 km away. I stopped at a pic-nick table along the way and had my all-to-common lunch of cheese, stale bread, and Power Bars. Yum!
The terrain was also changing the further inland I rode, with fewer trees, more red dirt, and more farmland. It was clear that I was entering Australian cattle country, as large pastures began to dominate the landscape, along with the occasional forested area, such as the Kangaroo River State Forest. I was able to make my way into South Grafton by ~2:30 pm and found the pub where I had arranged to stay for the evening (I had originally booked a B&B, but the owners were at the Grafton Cup and suggested that I go to their pub for the night instead). This “public house” was set-up in the classic British style, in a beautiful old building the owners were restoring (circa the early 1900s) and included the bar, a restaurant, and very basic and cheap accommodations upstairs (common bathrooms & showers down the hall). It was a nice change of pace and added one more component of my desire to get a true Australian experience with this tour. I was also able to take my bike to my room, which is always a consideration when it is your only means of travel! After getting cleaned-up, I ventured across the river to find that Grafton was essentially a ghost town because of the races. Alas, I headed back to the pub for dinner and had what turned-out to be a great meal of Chinese food. I was also able to meet the B&B/pub owners and enjoyed a long chat about their travels throughout the USA. I decided to turn-in early as well (although many of the pub’s patrons had other ideas), so that I could get a good night’s rest before my long ride toward Casino the next day.
Day 13: I woke-up quite early and got on the road at first light in anticipation of the long slog (100k+) to get up to my next stop just outside of Casino, NSW. After finding a nice cafe open early to get a decent breakfast and some great coffee, I headed north out of town on The Summerland Way, which was, for the most part, in considerably better shape than the roads I had traveled south of Grafton. My original plan was to simply take this road all the way to the outskirts of Casino, but at ~50 km in and after losing the shoulder and being passed way too closely by several long semis, I opted for the longer, hillier, and mostly dirt (unsealed as the Aussies say) roads from Whiporie to my destination at Mangagorie – this included the Old Tenterfield Rd. and Busbys Flat Rd. (not very flat, by the way). While this slowed my pace a bit from an average of ~25 kph to ~18 kph, I found the roads to be in reasonably good condition and was only passed by six vehicles over the entire way. This area was also much more forested and pleasant than the highway, although there was nothing in the way of services. Thankfully, I had stopped in Whiporie to top-off my water and pick-up some snacks that constituted lunch at an abandoned bus stop along the way.
Since this was to officially be my last night on the cycling tour, I had decided to stay at a nicer “farmstay” on the outskirts of town, rather than a cheap motel in Casino. This turned out to be a great decision! The Mongogarie Lodge (https://www.facebook.com/MongogarieOlives/timeline) is actually a very rural, organic, family run olive farm, as part of a huge expanse of forested land. I was able to meet the entire family, originally from Italy, and was immediately welcomed and well fed (their wood fired oven pizza was to die for and certainly made-up for the lunch of crackers I had had on the road). The grandson, a university student on break from Sydney, was able to give me a tour of the farm, as well as a fascinating “bush walk” through their property. This was topped-off with an incredibly huge and delicious multi-course dinner. I could not have asked for a better way to top-off what was already a phenomenal tour!
Day 14 (12-Jul-14): The last ride of the tour was a relatively short 23 km from Mongogarie to Casino, the so-called “Beef Capital of New South Wales.” Half of the ride was on quiet, rural farm roads and the other half was on the busy Summerland Way, giving me one final taste of fast traffic, big trucks, and varying shoulder widths.
As I have done on cycling tours in the U.S. and throughout Europe, I wanted to experience train travel in Australia, so I decided to take the 7:30 pm night train from Casino to Sydney (http://www.railaustralia.com.au/xpt.php). I got to the station early enough to disassemble “The Mighty One” and get it into a bike box. One of the less-progressive things about Australian train system is that they require cyclists to put their bicycles in a bike box. This double sucked, as the biggest box they had required me to essentially disassemble every component of my bike and use all of my engineering expertise to fit it into the box. The process took me a good two hours, but fortunately I had arrived in Casino at noon, giving me plenty of time to complete this arduous task before heading into town for a late lunch.
As had been recommended to me on several occasions, and to add another to my true Australian experiences, I opted to try the Casino Returned Servicemen’s Club for lunch. This club, like similar ones in many larger towns throughout Australia, operates as a community gathering spot for military veterans and their families and typically includes a nice bar, dining room, and gambling area (I opted to take advantage of the good and relatively inexpensive food in the dining area, which included a good rugby game – footy as its called – on the big screen television). Guests are welcome at RSCs, although you have to prove that you are visiting the area – my North Carolina drivers licence did the trick! After this big lunch, I stopped by a local market and got snacks that would tie me over on the 13 hour night train ride back to Sydney. I had splurged for a sleeper cabin and it was money well spent! I was able to lower a bed down and get a reasonably restful evening, all things considered. I arrived back in Sydney the next morning feeling much better than most of the other travelers looked – i.e. the ones who had been in the economy (cattle car) section of the train.
Epilogue: The cycle touring portion of my Australian trip was now over. Ashley, my college roommate, picked me up at the train station (reassembling my bike at this point for the ~10 km ride to his place was out of the question) and I was now just another American tourist in Sydney. I was able to spend a few days enjoying this world-class city with him and his family before flying back home.
This solo ride across a small section of Australia was amazing, challenging, frightening at times, but most of all was another trip of a lifetime! The things I saw, the people I met, and the experiences I had – alone and in the company of wonderful Aussies – will never be forgotten. It was, in short, life changing and I would not hesitate to recommend it to anyone!