In August 2008 I set off on my bike to cycle from Brisbane to Copenhagen, trying to make it in time for the climate change conference in December 2009. In retrospect I really had very little idea what I was doing. At the time I knew I didn’t know what I was doing, but in retrospect it has become even more obvious. Sometimes I think about how I survived when I collapsed in East Timor, or ran out of food and water in the Gobi desert, and it’s not really obvious to me how I did it.
Here I describe some of my initial planning and the first 5 months of the journey, including excerpts from my diary.
I first got the idea to cycle across Europe, Asia and Australia back in 2006, when I was living in the Highlands of Scotland. I was a social worker for the child protection services, which was a gruelling job, but in the loveliest setting I have still ever come across. I loved travelling, and had already done a lot of it, but always on the beaten path, in the comfort of planes, buses and trains, hoping from friends to family, hotels to hostels. I wanted more adventure.
I was hitch-hiking through Germany during the World Cup in 2006 when, with my thumb sticking out and my Stuttgart sign pressed against my chest, an old school friend stopped to give me a lift. It was an incredible coincidence, and by the time we reached Stuttgart to watch Australia vs Croatia he had been won over by the idea.
When I got back to the Highlands my friend emailed me to tell me he’d started planning our journey, Sydney to Singapore. We were going to raise one million pounds for Save the Children and some major companies were going to sponsor us, so we wouldn’t have to spend a penny. Well, this sounded unbelievable and didn’t really fit into my plans. I already had a ticket to South America where I was going to backpack and volunteer my way around for six months. The cycling trip was suppose to come afterwards. But my friend told me not to worry, by the time I was done with South America he’d have sorted it all out.
In the end my friend gave up before we ever began. He broke his leg and was told not to do strenuous exercise on it for the next two years. He was rejected twice by all the major companies he contacted asking for thousands of pounds to pay for a couple of nobodies to go on a cycling trip. So I ended up back in Australia, working in child protection again, saving up to cycle back to Europe and doing it to save the planet, rather than Save the Children.
Sydney, 2nd June 2008
“It’s something I had to do. I’ll soon be embarking on something special and I think it has the potential to have implications that go beyond me. I’m planning a trip, the ultimate trip as far as I’m concerned. I’m going to try and ride a bicycle from Brisbane to the other side of the planet. At the end of July I’m off.”
I’d initially planned to travel through South East Asia, then India, Pakistan and the Middle East before hitting Europe. That seemed the best way as it looked the shortish. I also planned to record the impacts of climate change, as I’d heard they’d already begun in many developing countries. “These are places where the impacts of a polluted environment, higher temperatures, changes in sea level and climate patterns are everyday matters of life, death and survival, not just rhetoric,” I wrote.
I thought my cycle might help raise awareness of those issues, and some of the solutions, like environmentally friendly transport and travel. I’d heard the UN was having a conference on climate change in Copenhagen, in December 2009, and that seemed a logical place to aim towards.
“I’m going to ride my bike to Copenhagen and I hope that helps people start thinking about riding their bikes (or walking) to the local shops, or work, or wherever.”
Hervey Bay, Queensland, 13th August 2008
“It’s the end of day 4 and I’m in Hervey Bay, about 280 km north of Brisbane. I’m pretty tired and sweaty but happy I’m finally on the road and heading in vaguely the right direction. The first few days have been interesting but not spectacular. Half of it was riding through the extended suburbs of Brisbane.
It was sad to say goodbye to my family as I’ll be gone for so long. I felt a little scared as I’m not sure when I’ll see them again.”
Mackay, Queensland, 21st August 2008
“It’s been hard-going at times but I’m happy with my progress and should reach Cairns about the time I expected. Especially given the fact Cairns is actually 300 km further away from Brisbane than I thought it was.
I took a detour to see the Hay Point Coal Port, one of the biggest coal export ports in the world and certainly the largest in Australia. I wanted to do something when I got there, a little protest, but I got scared. I wasn’t sure what to do or how. I felt small. I didn’t do anything.”
Townsville, Queensland, 29th August 2008
“I’m staying with a friend of a friend who lives in a lavish apartment overlooking the Ross River. It’s absolute luxury and to be honest I’m don’t even feel guilty. It’s good sleeping in a proper bed and having a proper shower.
Last night I stayed in a small park by the side of the highway with a bunch of retired people driving motor homes around Australia. It’s really popular for retirees here. You see these big shiny boxes being dragged around the country side, traffic backing up behind them. Everyone was warm and friendly, I was offered pasta bake, fruit and custard which I happily devoured.
They started talking about climate change, telling each other it was a conspiracy to make people buy new light bulbs. They said the climate had been changing all their lives with droughts and floods, today was no different. I wanted to tell them I disagreed, that the science disagreed, but I didn’t. I didn’t want to argue after they’d looked after me so well, and they all had a lot more experience than me.
The next night I slept on the Ayr Rugby Oval, home of the Burkedin Canetoads. It was a dangerous decision as it was also home to an armada of mosquitos. At dusk they decided to launch an attack. Powerless to fend them off I threw my tent up in record time and dived in before I was consumed.
I met two young Frenchmen traveling south. A headwind was pushing them backwards and their bikes were weighed down with crates and plastic boxes, a DIY job that looked pretty funny. One of them said his rack had broken 10 times and I could see it was held together by wire. But they were still in good humour and continued on.”
Cairns, Queensland, 7th September 2008
“It’s my last day here. I arranged a press conference but no press showed, so I guess it was just a conference. I met Di from the local Wilderness Society office who gave me the run down on the local environmental issues. She said the region has been over-developed, destroying the natural beauty that brings people here in the first place.”
Georgetown, Queensland, 14th Sept 2008
“It’s really starting to heat up. I rode just under 100km yesterday, through the middle of the day. It felt like the sun was hanging just over my shoulders most of the way.
I stopped at what was supposed to be a secret swimming hole about 40 kilometres from Mt Surprise. I decided to go skinny dipping and was happily frolicking when I realised there was a family camping on the other side. I discreetly scampered back to my clothes and tried to look decent.
Riding out of Cairns has been uniformly hard. It’s surprising that everything I read about traveling by bicycle just said how nice it was, how pleasant. The truth is it’s actually pretty hard. You sweat a lot, your muscles ache and if you’re not careful you could dehydrate or get hit by a road train.
It rained heavily for three days straight. The rain kept me cool but created difficult conditions. Mist enveloped most of the Atherton Tablelands and visibility was bad. I was trying to get to a place called Millaa Millaa but the hills were killing me and by early evening I was ready to collapse. I looked for somewhere to camp and eventually found a deserted construction site. With no energy left I decided to rest there. Once I had pulled my bike up the steep driveway and set up my tent it was already dark.
It was a strange place, a half-made house, that looked like it had been half-made for a long time. I put up my tent on the dirt of the ground floor, but the wood above seemed to be rotten and water was pouring through everywhere, turning the dirt into thick mud. It didn’t feel comfortable but I needed to rest.
Just as I was getting ready to sleep the harsh light of a torch was shone in my face. An angry voice told me to pack my things and fuck off. It turns out the site wasn’t deserted at all. I tried to explain what I was doing, that I was so tired and just needed somewhere to sleep, but the man wouldn’t listen. He just got angrier and angrier, kept shouting abuse at me, accused me of being a prostitute and said he was going to call the police.
So in the middle of the pouring rain, his torch still in my face, I repacked my things and left. The glue-like mud had stuck to everything and I was drenched. The rush and darkness meant I couldn’t load my bike so I couldn’t ride it. Instead I walked through the mist and night, my tent and belongings grasped in clenched fists, leaning on my bike, hoping to find somewhere to sleep. I ended up walking all the way to Millaa Millaa.
Millaa Millaa falls were stunning. Punishing uphill slopes were rewarded with magical surroundings. The rolling hills of pine trees and small diary farms were dotted with lush rainforest. It was a surreal environment where cows lounged under the canopy, rivers and creeks gurgled and glistened into waterfalls, the constant drizzle and mist hung elegantly over everything.
I rode past a wind farm, the enormous white structures rearing suddenly from the ground, standing proudly astride the highest hill. The mist kept devouring the turbines before they were revealed again. They looked alien and powerful.
For a short time I had riding companion in Naoki, a young medical assistant from Japan. He had a very pronounced stutter and was cycling around Australia. I was very impressed as he had just cycled around the incredibly tough Cape York. He looked like a short little tropical Darth Vader with his black lycra, massive dark sunglasses and enormous black shade cloth hanging from the back of his helmet. He was carrying about 50 kilos of luggage and was struggling. I kept passing him and then waiting for him to catchup.
Unluckily after about 75 kilometres he rode over an extraordinarily bed of thorns. I have no idea how so many got on the road together. They punctured his front and back tyres multiple times. He was forced to give up for the rest of the day and set-up camp, so I left him and continued on.”
Normanton, Queensland, 19th September 2008
“I got out of hospital yesterday after being nearly debilitated by heat exhaustion and dehydration. I’m feeling fine now, after the wonderful hospital staff pumped me full of liquid, electrolytes and potassium. But it’s made me re-think my plan to cycle across the desert from here to Darwin.
The heat exhaustion manifested in the last couple of hours cycling 155 kilometres from Croydon. I had left at 6am, deciding I was best off cycling the whole way in the morning and early afternoon rather than wait. The late afternoon doesn’t get any cooler.
The first 100 kilometres had gone ok but then it started getting tough. Over the last 30 kilometres I was in a lot of trouble. I lost most of my energy and became dizzy. My body felt like a foreign object, it was difficult to feel my arms. The air was so hot, it felt like being in an oven, but the sunlight was worse. I could feel it burning me where it touched my skin. The land here is flat and dry and virtually barren, there was no shade, nowhere to stop and rest. Everything here is brown, short, sharp, dry and brittle.
I somehow stayed on the bike and rolled into Normanton a wreck, stumbling into the supermarket to cool down. I bought litres of cool drinks and ice-cream and poured them all down my throat to bring down my temperature. Eventually my dizziness subsided.
The problems started again when I tried to eat. I got terrible stomach cramps that lasted into the night when I threw up everything I had tried. I attempted to sleep it off but couldn’t, the next day it continued. I couldn’t eat, I didn’t have energy to move, I just lay anywhere I could find shade, trying to stay cool and hoping the stomach cramps would go away.
As I wasn’t improving the watchful staff of the caravan park took me to the tiny Normanton Hospital, where I promptly threw up all over the emergency room reception. My body was trying to choke out every last drop of liquid. Thankfully I was hooked up to a drip overnight and my body slowly returned to normal. In the morning I could eat again.
That incident, combined with the prospect of further temperature increases and greater distances between shelter have made me decide to try for a lift across the desert, at least until Katherine. The heat here is brutal, it’s been between 36º and 38º and I’m told will be heading up to 40º plus in the next couple of weeks. I’m very apprehensive about cycling through the day, let alone the need to give my body a chance to recuperate. The only option to continue cycling across land would be to do so at night, however that still poses danger.
I stuck up signs all over town asking for a lift. A couple said they could give me a lift so long as I shared petrol costs. Aaron, all tattoos, pony tail and ferocious eyes, looks like he would have no hesitation killing me, but both he and Angela seem genuine so I should be back on the road soon.
I also met a bloke named Max traveling the country on foot, with his dog and his donkey as companions. He can only travel about 20 kilometres a day but can carry enough food to last 2 months!”
Darwin, Northern Territory, 30th September 2008
“I arrived in Darwin yesterday with the sun boiling, drenched in sweat, tired. I had just cycled 115 kilometres from Adelaide River. I’ve reached the end of the Australian leg of the journey after pedalling some 2,650 kilometres plus about 1,500 kilometres in the back of a 4×4.
I’m relieved, but disappointed I had to resort to hitching through the toughest and hottest terrain. Still, I regained my health and feel confident I can continue without any more heat exhaustion. I’ll learn from this and plan better when I take on China, Pakistan and Iran.
My journey took several unexpected turns. I had been ready to set off from Normanton with the couple who offered me a lift. I had felt a little uneasy, they were so friendly, so happy to have me travel with them, it seemed too much. The night before I was due to leave with them Max (the bloke with the donkey) told me the couple had been looking for heroin in the local pubs and were desperate for money. I’ve got about 4 ½ thousand dollars worth of equipment with me and they were going to take me into one of the most isolated places on earth, the great red interior.
Max asked me to promise not to travel with them, saying it was too risky. I wasn’t convinced but later that night out-of-the-blue a local aboriginal woman pleaded with me not to hitch because she believed I would go missing. I decided not to chance my luck I said no to the lift, instead cycling north to Karumba and the Gulf of Carpentaria.
Luckily for me, on the beach in Karumba I met a large group driving all across Australia in 4x4s. They were heading to Darwin and after a days deliberations they agreed to take me, tying my bike to the roof of one of their 4×4s with me sharing fuel and food costs. I had got extremely lucky.
For 10 days I traveled with this motley crew; a mixture of gregarious, sometimes bizarre and often drunk people of various ages from Melbourne, Byron Bay and the Philippines. As time passed they accepted me into their merry gypsy troupe.
We stopped off in the paradises of Boodjamulla and Katherine Gorge, diving off cliffs and swimming down the gorges. At Pine Creek I got back on my bike and we said goodbye. I was happy to be pedalling again, having been a passenger though hundreds of kilometres of red dirt roads and straight flat highways etched into the great desert that is central Australia.
I met a wonderful French couple working in the Daly Waters pub who had just cycled through the desert from Cairns. They had camped in the sun, under a tarp shelter they put up next to the road, hailing passing trucks for water. I was amazed and full of admiration for them. It’s a tremendous feat, both physically and mentally, to cycle through that part of the country.”
Darwin, Northern Territory, 10th October 2008
“Time in Darwin has been flying by. I work 8am until 4.21pm (Northern Territory Public Service hours) Monday to Friday. I work on the Northern Territory Child Protection Phone Line. It’s hard and emotionally draining, but relatively well paid and I’m in a cool office all day and not out in the sweltering 36º, 85% humidity, on my knees picking fruit like I thought I’d be.
I’m doing what I promised myself I’d never do again, staring at a computer screen all day as the pinched nerve in my butt tightens and starts to ache. But it’s only for a short time, just long enough to earn the money I need to get me to Copenhagen. It’s so hot here I’m fantasising about cold showers and Canberra winters.”
Darwin, Northern Territory, 7th November 2008
“I’ve been in Darwin for just over a month now, trying to find out how to get on a yacht or ship to East Timor. But I’ve only met with disappointment.
My arrival coincided with the end of the yachting season to Indonesia. The winds have turned and now sailing boats only go in the opposite direction. I was told I would have much better luck finding a yacht heading to South America and Africa. I checked with fishing boats and freighters but the fishing boats rarely head so far north and the ones that do don’t land in Timor. One freighting company heads to Dili regularly, but they don’t take passengers. Everyone advised me to fly and eventually, with no other options, I bought my ticket. In four weeks I fly to Dili and restart my cycling adventure.
I’ve tried to make the most of being here, speaking to environment organisations, media and people on the street. It’s encouraging to hear people talk about how much the environment means to them. These are some of the messages I’ll take with me to Copenhagen.
I’ve learnt a little more about life. I love the idea of traveling to new and exotic locations, meeting unexpected and exciting people, from backgrounds completely different from my own. This passion has motivated me since I was a kid, to get out of my comfort zone and explore the world. But this trip, and the sometime solitude it has brought so far, has highlighted that whatever treasures I find out there, they are only as precious as the special people in my life already. That the friends, family and lovers that I have and have had, are the most important treasures I’ve found so far. I must remember not to lose and forget them as I travel into whatever lies next.