After spending the first half of our stay in Australia in the part that spans 70 per cent of the continent – the Outback – the second half was dedicated to seeing some of the remaining 30 per cent which are home to 95 per cent of the population. The arc running along the southeast coast of the continent is sometimes referred to as the “Boomerang Coast” due to its shape. We passed through sleepy villages, charming small towns and bustling big cities, and stayed with over a dozen lovely locals, each with their own, fascinating stories to tell.
22nd September – 13th November 2019
Port Augusta is a small city, but it was the most populated place we’d been to in about three weeks – Alice Springs is more than 1,000 kilometres north as the crow flies and over 1,800 kilometres separated the two on our route – and it marked the end of our time in the Outback. From here on, we would never be far from a tap to fill our water bottles and a supermarket to fill our food bag. We fitted the tandem with a new back wheel as the old one had well and truly had it, and, after staying with Couchsurfing host Mark for a couple of nights, were ready to hit the road again.
To make our way east, we had to cross the southern reaches of the Flinders Ranges. Not having traversed any significant hills on the tandem, this prospect filled us with slight worries, but ultimately, the gradients were far from steep and the passage proved rather manageable.
The landscape was, as expected, very different from the flat, arid shrubland we had negotiated for most of our time in Australia thus far. Winding roads cutting through green hills soon took us into Mount Remarkable National Park between and overlooking the Spencer Gulf to the west and the Willochra Plain to the east. Mount Remarkable itself, 961 metres high, didn’t really strike us as deserving of its name, but that didn’t stop us from having a pleasant time. Our experience ranged from feeling like we were riding through the English countryside, to spotting exotic, colourful birds, reminding us that we were still in Australia, to learning the dangers of being on a bicycle during magpie swooping season, lending credence to the meme that everything in Australia wants to kill you.
Australian magpies are in fact not closely related to Eurasian ones and only received their name due to similar colouration. They are capable of a variety of complex calls, can mimic many other species and are highly territorial, so they will often display quite aggressive behaviour during the breeding season and attack potential predators, i.e. pedestrians and cyclists crossing their territory. The first time we heard a swoosh above our heads out of nowhere, we were caught completely off-guard and didn’t quite know what was going on. Soon, fighting off angry magpies became part of our daily routine, and we often spotted them before their first swoop, perched on top of telephone poles or treetops, watching us carefully, which was our cue for bracing ourselves. We were however still regularly surprised by the sudden appearance of a bird-shaped silhouette next to our bike’s shadow on the road, or the sound of wings flapping uncomfortably close to our heads. Cyclists in Australia resort to all kinds of different methods that supposedly deter the magpies, including attaching upward-pointing cable ties to one’s helmet, making them appear like sharp spikes, but no technique has been proven to work reliably so we stuck to pedalling a bit faster, Tim concentrating on the road, Linda keeping track of the magpie’s whereabouts and flailing her arms around during an attack.
The much higher population density of the parts of Australia in which we would spend our remaining time down under, compared to the Outback, also meant a greatly increased frequency in opportunities to stay with Couchsurfing and Warmshowers hosts. After staying in a town called Laura with Andrew, who kindly took us out for an afternoon drive to see some stunning views of Mount Remarkable National Park and a beautifully painted silo, we stayed with more Warmshowers hosts on consecutive nights in charming towns in the Clare Valley and Barossa Valley, both notable winegrowing regions.
To get to our hosts Kerstin and Louise’s home in the Clare Valley, we followed the Riesling Trail, a former railway line turned walking and cycling path, one of many such rail trails in Australia. Between vineyards, flowery slopes would be framing the trail on our way and the dreamlike quality of the scene further intensified when we made friends with a bird: we stopped for it as we thought it was hurt, but it turned out it just wanted to sit in the middle of the path and, subsequently, on our panniers. Kerstin and Louise, however, were way ahead on their making-friends-with-birds game and could call a group of magpies their homies: they had started unintentionally feeding them when they’d had a dog and the birds would steal some of its food, but once the dog had died, the magpies had continued to show up on their terrace, demanding to be fed, so now Kerstin and Louise buy cat food for the magpies. They, as well as Judith, our following host in the Barossa Valley, spoiled us with amazing local wines, grown and produced on their doorsteps.
Judith had recently got into cycle touring after a trip around Southeast Asia with her brothers and a subsequent solo tour along the Great Ocean Road, which awaited us about a week and a half later. She came out to meet and cycle with us for about 30 kilometres back to her place and again joined us the next morning for a similar distance. The Barossa Valley is part of the Mount Lofty Ranges which separate Adelaide on the coast from the extensive plains that stretch eastwards, and as such featured some relatively steep rolling hills, so riding with Judith meant chatting during brief stretches of flat roads, her being way ahead of us during uphills and us catching up and overtaking on downhills.
With Adelaide surrounded by either mountains or water on most sides, we had decided to pass on a visit to South Australia’s capital and continued in a south-easterly direction. We descended from the eastern Mount Lofty Ranges, an area quite reminiscent of England’s Peak District with sheep grazing on pastureland traversed and breached by jagged grey rock, down towards the Murray River basin. After crossing the Murray River, Australia’s longest river at over 2,500 kilometres, by ferry, we loosely followed its course down to where it meets the Southern Ocean, then pedalled along the so-called Limestone Coast.
As the name of the area implies, it features limestone landforms, so before meeting our Couchsurfing host Adam in the city of Mount Gambier, we visited the Umpherston Sinkhole, also known as the Sunken Garden. As we learnt during our time in southern China, Vietnam and Thailand, sinkholes are usually created when a limestone cave’s roof collapses, and in this case, the resulting space was adorned with all sorts of plants by an ambitious politician in the 19th century. To get to Adam’s place, we had to negotiate a number of short but arduously steep rolling hills, but the exertion was worth it, as Adam was an incredibly funny and interesting character to meet, having worked as a primary school teacher, a tour guide in Alice Springs and now working at the nearby airport, while in his free time he’s a rally co-driver and has travelled through India by rickshaw. We sometimes tend to only look for hosts on Warmshowers – many cycle tourists don’t use Couchsurfing at all – as this usually ensures that the person you’re staying with has some sort of understanding of cycle touring, that there’s a chance that you’re dirty and smelly when you arrive, and that even after having a shower you might want to have some alone-time before socialising, but Adam was a good reminder that there are fantastic hosts on Couchsurfing too, and it would have been a shame not to have met him.
From Mount Gambier, we rode through timber plantation forests before crossing into Victoria, our third Australian state, then took some dirt roads through Cobboboonee National Park to get to a lovely free campsite – we were the only ones there, apart from some very tame wallabies that munched on the grass surrounding our tent as we were preparing our dinner, and koalas in nearby trees, whose grunting noises we heard but that we unfortunately didn’t see. Overnight, the weather seemed to remember that we were now in the wettest Australian state after Tasmania, and we woke up to grey skies and drizzle. Rain of varying intensity would accompany us for much of our time in Victoria, although the worst of it seemed to often fall overnight, making us happy we had recently purchased a new tent. After spending over 200 nights in our old tent, all four zips had started breaking and its waterproofness was questionable so we had, heavy-heartedly, decided it would be time for home #2.
One morning, we noted that it was unusually dark as our alarm sounded but decided to just snooze a couple more times rather than racking our brains as to what might be the possible reason. Later that day, when we arrived in the town of Port Fairy and met Warmshowers hosts Wally and Jean, Jean remarked on her sense of time being off after last night’s change of the clocks. “Ah, I didn’t even know th… ohhh.”, Linda replied. Port Fairy was voted the world’s most liveable town with a population under 20,000 in 2012, and Wally and Jean are a remarkable elderly couple that adopted four children (two of whom we met at dinner) and fostered over a hundred. We were made to feel part of the family and loved listening to their stories from days of yore.
A little further east, we finally arrived at the start of the Great Ocean Road, one of Australia’s most popular tourist attractions. Ever since our arrival on the continent, people we had told about our planned route had been raving about the Great Ocean Road, everyone had agreed that it was stunning, although some had also voiced concerns about cycling it due to the narrow, busy, winding, steep nature of the road. The overall consensus, however, seemed to be that we’ll be fine as long as we watch out for Chinese tourists driving on the wrong side of the road.
The reason for the scenic highway’s popularity is a number of limestone stack formations that the pounding surf of the Southern Ocean has gnawed out of the crumbly cliffs. The most famous site in this natural sculpture park is a cluster of free-standing pillars known as the Twelve Apostles, closely followed by London Arch, known as London Bridge until 1990, when one of the natural bridge’s spans collapsed, leaving two tourists stranded on the outer span before being rescued off the newly formed island by helicopter. Apart from the Apostles, London Arch and countless other dramatic features along the ocean’s coastline, we saw another natural arch, creatively called The Arch, and Loch Ard Gorge, named after a ship that ran aground on a nearby reef in 1878. Of the 54 passengers of the Loch Ard, only two teenagers survived by being washed into the only safe gorge on the coast. Considering how the appearance of the landscape in this area has come to be, it’s no surprise that the same vigour with which the elements have sculpted the arresting features has been the downfall of many a ship that has attempted to navigate these rough waters – this stretch of coast is appropriately named “Shipwreck Coast”.
Possibly thanks to a lot of “Drive on left in Australia” signs, we didn’t see any cars on the wrong side of the road; it was also nowhere near as busy or steep as we had feared, so we spent a very enjoyable four days between Allansford and Torquay, the official start and end of the Great Ocean Road. When possible, we took smaller, partly unpaved roads, along one of which we saw an echidna, a pointy-snouted animal that somewhat resembles a hedgehog and, together with the platypus, forms the only order of mammals that lay eggs.
After having encountered several of the animals that Australia is known for – kangaroos and wallabies, dingoes, echidnas, emus, kookaburras and cockatoos – we had high hopes of adding koalas to that list when we passed through Great Otway National Park, an area that stretches from the coast to the hinterland boasting stately eucalyptus forests, waterfalls and a significant koala population. We camped at an idyllic rest area in the national park where we saw hundreds of bioluminescent glow worms on an embankment after dark, spotted lusciously colourful king parrots, but of koalas, there was no sign, not even a grunting in the evening as we had heard it a few days earlier near Mount Gambier. Still, we loved riding through the verdant, fern-filled rainforests on small, quiet roads, before rejoining the Great Ocean Road in the town of Kennett River and reaching its end at Torquay, where we stayed with another Warmshowers family. Paul and Leiset cycled around Europe, Central Asia and South America a few years ago until they had their first child, although having children did no harm to their adventurous spirit and they continue to go on expeditions by bike – the most recent one earlier this year around Patagonia with their first-born in a trailer and Leiset pregnant with their second child.
From Torquay, it would have been a 100-kilometre ride to central Melbourne when sticking to the main road, or a 50-kilometre ride to the tip of the Bellarine Peninsula, followed by a 50-kilometre ferry crossing from the town of Portarlington to Melbourne’s inner suburb of Docklands; we opted for the latter option.
When writing that we were sometimes “invited to stay with people once we would get to where they lived” in our previous blog post, these words were written from the home of Ruth and Peter, a couple we had met at a rest area along the Stuart Highway, who had given us coffee in the morning and invited us to stay with them once we would get to Melbourne. We gladly took them up on their offer and stayed with them in Victoria’s capital for a few days, going through our usual big-city break routine of sightseeing, spending hours at Decathlon, working on the blog and relaxing. Melbourne seemed like a very liveable city – an eclectic mix of Victorian (the era, not the state we were in; confusingly, when something is referred to as Victorian in Australia, you always have to decide whether that something relates to the era of Queen Victoria or the Australian state of Victoria) and modern architecture, a laid-back, multicultural flair and a decent cycling infrastructure. It was great spending time with Ruth and Peter and hearing how the rest of their trip by caravan had gone, and telling them about our trip. Ruth is also a keen cyclist and has a few times partaken in the Great Victorian Bike Ride, an annual multi-day cycling event, which, when Linda first heard of it, she imagined as a group of women in corseted gowns with wide, multi-layered skirts and men in frock coats and vests riding penny farthings, before remembering the name of the Australian state the event is held in.
From Melbourne, we had to decide whether to stick to the coast to get to Sydney or head inland and remain north-west of the Australian Alps, the highest mountain range in Australia, the tallest peak being Mount Kosciuszko at 2,228 metres. Looking at the map, it seemed more difficult to avoid the main road along the coast and we had already seen a fair bit of Australian coastline over the previous weeks, so we chose the inland route. We still had to go on the freeway sometimes – though not overly pleasant, also not unsafe due to a large hard shoulder – but we also took many smaller roads running more or less parallel to the freeways.
The weather remained volatile for the remainder of our time in Victoria and we experienced a bit of rain and a bit of sunshine on most days. We stayed with Warmshowers host Joan for a night in the small city of Benalla which is home to an annual street art festival, the output of which can be seen on walls across the town, and camped at some charming rest areas by the Goulburn and the Murray River. The Murray River, which we had previously crossed by ferry near its mouth in South Australia about three weeks prior, here, near its source in the Australian Alps, marked the border to the last Australian state we would be cycling through: New South Wales.
It was around this time that we noticed the rim of our front wheel bulging out on both sides in one section. Having experienced this same problem on our back wheel towards the end of the Stuart Highway and having eventually discovered that it was a crack down the middle of the inside of the rim which was causing it, we took off the front tyre to examine the rim, and lo and behold, a similar crack presented itself. With the hilliest sections of our route through Australia ahead of us – even though we were skirting around the Australian Alps, we still had to cross the Great Dividing Range, of which the Alps are a part, at some point, in order to get back to the coast – we decided that we would have to get a new wheel asap.
As it was a Sunday and the bike shops in the nearby city of Wagga Wagga (“You don’t need to say the second Wagga”) were closed, we messaged Warmshowers hosts John and Monique and asked if they would be able to host us on such short notice. They were, and once we had arrived at their place, they asked us if we had any dinner plans, which of course we didn’t, apart from “well, we have some pasta and pesto in the food bag, and there might be an onion in there somewhere”, and if we would like to join them for dinner – in Canberra. As Canberra would have been a very hilly detour from any route we could have taken from Melbourne to Sydney, we had already made our peace with the fact that we wouldn’t get to visit Australia’s capital, so this was a perfect opportunity to be able to see it after all.
Now, from Wagga to Canberra, it’s not just like a half-hour drive, as someone from Europe might assume, if it’s an option for people to drive there for dinner. It’s about 250 kilometres – each way. We didn’t mind as we didn’t have to cycle it, and we got to know John and Monique over the course of the mini-road trip. After a delicious dinner with them, two of their daughters and family friends whom we met at the restaurant, they showed us around some of the sights of the planned city – built as a compromise when no agreement could be achieved on whether Melbourne or Sydney should be Australia’s capital – then we headed back to Wagga. The next morning, we bought a new front wheel and were thus ready for the big hills, with “big” in this case being a very relative term, as the uphill part of our crossing of the Great Dividing Range – an 800-metre climb – stretched out over the course of about 250 kilometres, with only occasional, short, steep sections. On our way to the coast, we then dropped back down to sea level over less than a tenth of that distance.
The landscape in this part of New South Wales was much drier than that we had passed through until a few days prior in Victoria. We rode past endless fields of different shades of green and golden; livestock animals were gathering under trees seeking shade. We often saw an alpaca or two poking out amidst of a herd of sheep and wondered if the alpacas either think that they, themselves, are taller sheep, or that sheep are shorter alpacas. When googling “are alpacas and sheep friends”, we learnt that the camelids make for excellent guard animals and will ferociously protect smaller animals from dingoes and foxes, that they bond with a flock of sheep in a matter of hours, and that, apparently, they sometimes attempt some inter-species sexy time.
The weather had also changed; precipitation of any kind disappeared from our daily lives again, it was now always warm and sunny, as in the corresponding latitudes we had been in South Australia, although temperatures cooled down slightly as we slowly gained elevation. Annoyingly, flies made a temporary reappearance and we had to cycle with our fly nets on a few times. Our last Warmshowers host in Australia was a woman named Margot in Moss Vale, a town in a region known as the Southern Highlands. Not having done any research about the highlands, we were glad that Margot took us to see some spectacular waterfalls plunging off the plateau into rainforest gorges and awesome views that we would have had no idea were there.
After leaving Moss Vale, we too plunged off the plateau, back down to the coast. At Lake Illawarra, a coastal lagoon, we met Frank, a university friend of Tim’s who now lives in nearby Wollongong. Frank was preparing for the “Sydney to the Gong” bike ride which would take place the weekend after, so had cycled out to meet us and cycle back the 20 kilometres to his place in “the Gong” together. We spent a few rest days in Wollongong, caught up with Frank and met his partner Jacqueline, had a look about the city and went for a swim in a very cold rock pool off the very cold Pacific Ocean.
Leaving Wollongong towards Sydney, we passed through Royal National Park, the world’s second-oldest national park after Yellowstone, which partly overlaps with the Illawarra Range immediately to the west of the narrow coastal plain, making our last day of riding in Australia our hilliest one at over 900 metres of elevation gain. Luckily, the dense rainforest canopy of the national park provided shade and prevented us from overheating on the steep ascends. Once the road flattened out, we were able to fully enjoy the surrounding landscape of tall trees and an understory of ferns and giant red-flowered Gymea lilies, which reach several metres in height and are found only along the coast and surrounding bushland of the Sydney Basin. At the end of the road lay the village of Bundeena, which is connected to Sydney’s beachside suburb of Cronulla by ferry.
We had hoped for a modern, accessible ferry with a ramp of some sort that would have made it easy for us to wheel the tandem over, but what approached the jetty at the scheduled time was a quaint little green and yellow timber vessel built in the 1930s; the oldest commuter ferry still operating in Australia. When trying to manoeuvre the bike through the narrow doors and into the narrow aisle, the boatman assured us that he had “seen it done before”, although whether he meant getting a fully-loaded bike into the cabin or a fully-loaded tandem remained unclear. We managed eventually, although one of the pannier rack bolts snapped at the suggestion of holding the weight of the tandem when one of the ferry employees lifted the tandem by the rack.
At Cronulla, we were greeted by Graeme, whom we had met two and a half months prior at a rest area near Katherine in the Northern Territory – incidentally the same rest area at which we had met Ruth and Peter. At the time, we had told Graeme, also travelling by bicycle and on his way to Darwin, about our planned route and that we would hopefully sell the tandem again in Sydney. He had told us that he might be interested in buying it, as he lives in Sydney, and we exchanged numbers. A couple of weeks before we would reach Sydney, we had messaged him and asked if he was still interested in the tandem, to which he had replied that he would buy it and that we could also stay with him! We cycled with him to his home in the suburb of Caringbah, where he showed us an unused “granny flat”, i.e. a secondary dwelling on a property, in which we were welcome to stay, and we ended our last day of cycling in Australia with dinner with Graeme and his family. It was still nearly two weeks until our flight to New Zealand, which wasn’t so much bad time management on our part, but having booked our onward flights for the last day of Linda’s three-month Australian visa (Tim, as a Brit, got six months) in order to get to New Zealand as late as possible and allow the cool South Island to warm up a little.
The next day Graeme and his wife Elaine took us for a drive to nearby Botany Bay, the site of James Cook’s first landing on the landmass of Australia in 1770. Over the coming days, we took public transport into central Sydney to see the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge, took some ferries to Cockatoo Island and Manly, a suburb in northern Sydney which reminded us of a British seaside town but lacked the charm of one and did a walk along the suburban coast from Coogee to Bondi Beach. We saw lots of very evenly tanned and very fit-looking people, making us uncomfortably aware of the fact that all the reduced cakes we had bought over the previous couple of months and the free McDonald’s items we had “won” by picking up other people’s litter from the side of the road to peel off promotional vouchers for chips, fizzy drinks, ice-creams and burgers, had left their mark around our hips. We had to be mindful of our diet, especially now that we wouldn’t be cycling for a couple of weeks, but surely this didn’t apply to burgers for lunch, cake for dessert, Indian for dinner and beers at a pub on Linda’s birthday.
In some respects, such as the number of gorgeous beaches in close proximity to the city centre, Sydney was unlike any other city we’d ever been to; in others, it was akin to other urban and metropolitan areas we had encountered since Port Augusta: a mix of architecture, lots of greenery, people in the streets looking and speaking Chinese, Vietnamese, Indian, Greek, Russian, French and German but a distinct lack of Aboriginal people compared to the first half of our journey across the continent.
When video-chatting with family back home during our stay in Sydney, they were curious if we had seen any effects of the bushfires that had been making the news around the world. Indeed, for several of the days we spent in New South Wales’ capital, the city was engulfed in an eerie, fuzzy haze created by the wildfires that were and, at the time of writing, still are, raging all over NSW and other states. Before we left Australia, Linda flew to Brisbane, a thousand kilometres north of Sydney in Queensland, to visit a friend for a few days, and during the flight watched the thick blanket of smoke that covered much of the land below.
While bushfires have always been a common occurrence in Australia in summer, recent years’ seasons have increasingly been hitting earlier and more vigorously. Fueled by conditions exacerbated by climate change – record-breaking temperatures, strong winds and a drought that has lasted since 2017 – this year’s fires have already burnt an area three times larger than during the entire fire season last year. During our three-month stay in Australia, we saw vast deserts, lush rainforests and dramatic coastlines. We can only hope that humanity takes the right steps to reduce the natural disasters plaguing these lands, so that they are just as alluring for travellers of future generations.
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Thanks to our many hosts during this part of our journey: Mark in Port Augusta, Andrew in Laura, Kerstin and Louise in Watervale, Judith in Angaston, Adam in Mount Gambier, Wally and Jean in Port Fairy, Paul and Leiset in Torquay, Ruth and Peter in Melbourne, Joan in Benalla, John and Monique in Wagga Wagga, Margot in Moss Vale, Frank and Jacqueline in Wollongong and Graeme and Elaine in Sydney.
- We cycled 2,400 km from Port Augusta to Sydney, making a total of 33,300 km for Tim since leaving England and 32,800 km for Linda. Between blog posts, you can check our current total distances on our Stats page which we update a bit more frequently.
- During this stretch, our average distance on cycling days was 88 km, compared to 85 km for the whole trip since Germany.
- During this stretch, our average day-to-day spending was 5.82 € per person per day, compared to 6.34 € for the whole trip since Germany.
- We were invited to stay with Ruth and Peter in Melbourne and Graeme in Sydney for a combined 17 nights, stayed with 10 Warmshowers/Couchsurfing hosts for 15 nights, camped on 15 nights, and stayed with our friend Frank for 5 nights. From Germany to Sydney: 234 nights camping/empty buildings/places of worship, 144 nights WS/CS/friends/family, 122 nights paid accommodation (hotel/hostel/guesthouse/homestay), 35 nights invited into people’s homes/places of work, 7 nights ferry/train/plane. In 3 months in Australia, we paid for accommodation once: a paid campsite in Alice Springs.
- Puncture score: 0 during this section. Total from Germany: Tim 13 – Linda 7 – Nepal (the tandem) 6.
- Bike and equipment problems: Our rear rim cracked somewhere along the Stuart Highway, so we bought a new wheel in Port Augusta. The front rim cracked somewhere in Victoria/New South Wales so we bought a new (used) wheel in Wagga Wagga. Our front pannier rack snapped in one place but still worked fine. We had rear pannier rack bolts snap again twice so replaced them; in one instance had to get the remainder of the snapped bolt drilled out of the eyelet. As mentioned above, we also bought a new tent.
- Things we found by the side of the road: 4 bottles of beer, 1 Dollar, 1 roll of electrical tape, 1 can of coke (not quite as spectacular as the array of things we found along the Stuart Highway).
- Number of free McDonald’s items consumed: 21