Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Great South West Walk: Conclusion

Glenelg River
The GSWW is a little gem and I can definitely recommend it! It is perfect if you only have limited time and want to see what Australia has to offer for hiking. The GSWW is called a symphony with 4 movements. Although this is a bit over-poetic, I can see the point. The GSWW leads you through 4 distinct environments.
First you walk through Cobboboonee Forest which has just recently been declared a National Park. Although not spectacular you will see a lot of interesting trees, especially stringy barks - that caused my a lot of near heart attacks, when they peel off strips of barks and I think it is a tree branch falling down on me...
Next you follow the Glenelg river, which becomes a really nice river gorge in the end. The camp sites in this area are very scenic and you have wonderful views down at the river gorge.

The Capes
The third section is along the beaches of Discovery Bay. These beaches are like most Australian beaches: Absolutely beautiful and totally deserted. Even the sand is nice to walk on - not too soft.
The last section is the most spectacular: You walk along the cliffs of Cape Bridgewater and Cape Nelson. Fantastic views - despite the wind farms. Theoretically you can see blowholes and a seal colony as well, but in my case it was just too stormy....
 On all sections you see plenty of wild life. Tons of kangaroos, leeches (hah, hah), blue tongues and echidnas (egg-laying mammals that look like big hedgehogs).
The campsites are generally in very scenic locations next to the river Glenelg or the beach. Every campsite has a picnic table, a fire ring, a toilet and a water tank. Of course there is plenty of cleared space to set up a tent. Some campsites even have a nice shelter!

Blue tongue
The trail is very well marked and well maintained. Although you have to pay attention on the beach sections on where to leave the beach, navigation is not a problem. The walking is very easy. The terrain is pretty flat and even the beach walking is not too strenous.
Mind you: This is not a wilderness trail. You will hike through pastures and you will see wind farms. You will also cross roads that allow a great accessibility. But you will also see some really nice scenery.
My only complaint is the guidebook. It does not contain much of a trail description but focuses on flora and fauna. The overview maps are pretty bad - but the waymarking is so good that you don't need good maps.

Last advice: Don't hike it in winter....
All in all: Great trail - and I am really glad I hiked it!

Great South West Walk - back to winter!

My host Gray and I
When I arrived in Adelaide from Darwin it felt like stepping into another world. Darwin was a tropical 30 C and now I was in rainy winter Adelaide with 12 C.... Luckily I stayed with a super nice warm showers host in Adelaide. I felt right at home when I saw a huge bike on his verandah and a kayak in his living room. We talked almost non-stop for the whole day! But I had to leave the next morning for Portland and the Great South West Walk (GSWW)...

The GSWW started with a disappointment. There was no connecting bus service from Adelaide to Portland despite other information on the GSWW website. I had to stay the night in Mount Gambier, which felt pretty strange. I had been in Mount Gambier the year before with John when we were cycling across Australia. Luckily I had done all the sightseeing then and could now just relax in the hostel - which is an old jail! But when I left in the morning for my onward bus, the car windows were all frozen over. It is definitely winter again!

Shelter on the GSWW
When I arrived in Portland the first thing I did was to find an outdoor shop and buy a fleece pullover. Forget about the extra weight - I did not want to freeze my butt off! And that turned out to be a very wise decision as I was wearing my new 19,95 AUD fleece pullover every night.
 The first day out of Portland was actually quite disappointing, but what a nice surprise at the first camp site: A real nice shelter with a wooden picnic table - my bed for the night! Next day the weather was like it would be every day: rainy! It rains for about 5 - 10 minutes until you are thoroughly drenched, stops, then the sun comes out and when you are dry after about 1 hour the whole process starts all over again. I had rain on 7 out of 8 days....

Cobboboonee Forest
Next night I was in for a terribly shock. I had hiked 36 km, was camped on another one of these wonderful picnic tables under a shelter and was ready to go to bed after dinner. I was just getting out of my shoes when I saw it in total disbelief: My lower leg was all covered in blood. Everything was bloody. My shoes, my socks and my rainpants were soaked with blood and my gaiter was cover with a thick gooey layer of coagulated blood. Everything was so messy that I could not even see a wound. I could not believe my eyes. I had not hurt myself in the least. How could I have wounded myself so much without noticing? I tried to clean my leg to locate a wound. Mind you - it is almost freezing temperature and my only water source is a rainwater tank outside the shelter in the rain.... After cleaning the biggest mess I located a tiny little cut on my shin that is bleeding - and would not stop bleeding!!! I must say that I nearly had a panic attack. Here I was in the middle of nowhere freezing my butt off with a mysterious wound that would not stop bleeding. I could already see the headline: "German hiker bled to death in Cobboboonee Forest". To make things worse I was getting really cold and the only way to get warm was getting into my sleeping bag. But I did not want to get a bloody sleeping bag either!

In the end I put a huge Band-Aid on the cut, wrapped several layers of toilet paper over it and tried to rest my feet high up. It did not really help that the picnic table was shorter than my 1,82 m - I had to lie on the table and rest my feet on the shelter wall. But it somehow worked - I checked about every half hour and the bleeding had stopped. After the heavy blood loss it also seemed justified to eat another chocolate bar at night.... Eventually I fell asleep dreaming of spontaneous hemophiliac attacks and mysterious wounds. But all was good the next day: The wound had closed and I cleaned my blood-soaked socks and gaiters. It dawned on me only a couple of days later what had actually caused the mysterious bleeding: Probably a leech (Blutegel). I had read in my guidebook that leeches abound in this area - and a leech bite seems to be the only logical explanation for my mysterious blood loss.

But my life was endangered in another way, too... Several days later I was walking along the beach. Needless to say that it was extremely windy and raining like hell. According to the trail markers I was to walk along the beach for 2.8 km. I was sceptical to start with.... the beach was very wide, but there was also a very high tide! Surely they would not make me walk the beach if the tide is a problem? I studied my environment: On my right side was the ocean with high waves coming closer and closer. On my left side were the sand cliffs - about 20 m high and very steep. After 1 km I got a bit scared. Some big waves came crashing in and had made me trying to climb up the cliffs - there was no beach left for me to walk on. Turning back was not an option as the tide seemed to be coming in more and more. Mind you, I was not afraid of drowning or being washed away, but I did not want to get wet feet! But eventually I saw a ladder going up the cliff and my trail going up there! I virtually ran there to save myself.... I am a wuss!

But in the end nothing could deter me! I finished my 250 km thruhike of the GSWW despite leeches and rain - although I got really annoyed with the rain on my last day. About every piece of clothes I had was wet now and I was just feeling very, very cold...I took a short cut into Portland because I just wanted to get out of the rain. But what luxury in Portland: After camping for 7  nights I stayed in a very nice and cheap hotel which was even next to a supermarket! I bought a barbecued chicken and the spent the whole evening in front of the fan heater... And I even got a certificate about my hike! Back in Portland I had called a local trail volunteer to ask for a ride to the airport next morning and to give some feedback on my walk. He not only gave me a lift to the tiny Portland airport - he even gave me a certificate with my name on it!!!! What a nice surprise!

Monday, August 16, 2010

How to fly with a bike

Black Beauty - my bicycle
Flying with a bike is always a big hassle, but it is becoming more and more difficult!
I encountered the first serious problem last year in Korea when I was flying back to Germany. In order to save weight, I had put heavy bike parts like my bike lock and the saddle into my hand luggage. I had done that before on other flights and never had a problem. But for whatever reason the Koreans did not like it. Security sent me back to check in the bike saddle and the air pump. Maybe they assumed I could hit the pilot with the saddle?

Yesterday I flew from Darwin to Adelaide at the very friendly time of 2.40 am in the morning. I cycled to the airport and wanted to buy a bike box which is offered by various airlines - unfortunately not by Jetstar, the airline I was using. I tried Qantas first only to find out that they sell bike boxes only to Qantas customers. Jetstar and Qantas are codesharing their flights, but that did not impress them.

I then tried to convince Qantas passengers to buy a bike box for me (of course I would give them the money), but they reacted as if I had asked them to smuggle drugs for me! I started to get a bit nervous, because it is difficult to get a bike box at midnight anywhere else and airlines will not accept a bike as baggage without a box.

Would you trust this person?
Because nobody wanted to buy a box for me I tried another airline myself. I was lucky at the Virginblue counter. The attendant asked me whether I flew Virginblue but still sold me the box when I had denied. I left happily with my box and thought all was good. Big mistake! After two minutes she came running after me and told me that she had made a mistake and could only sell bike boxes to their own customers! It took me a lot of persuasion (I had already folded up the box) and talking to her manager so that they would let me keep the box.

I put everything that even looked remotely dangerous into the bike box and that I would have no problems now with hand luggage. I was wrong againg. Security confiscated and destroyed a roll of packaging tape! Even in my wildest dreams I cannot imagine how I could use a roll of packaging tape as a weapon on a flight and it is still a mystery to me why I was not allowed to bring it onto the plane.
But just for the record: After all that hassle everything went well and me and my bike made it to Adelaide.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Stuart Highway: The real attractions

In the middle of the great Nothingness there are some real attractions. They are few and far between, but that makes them even more attractive.

Devil's Marbles
Devil's marbles: This is a rock formation that looks like huge marbles piled on top of the other.For me they were mostly memorable because of two events: 3 Italian guys had climbed the rocks (which is forbidden), were flashing their willies around on top of the marbles (which is weird) showing them amongst other people to the local ranger who had happened to come by (which is just plain stupid). The ranger got terribly upset, made them come done and gave them a lengthy lecture about being disrespectful - all of which was a great evening entertainment for me. But when I was looking for a campsite (after the ranger had left, of course) I got another companion: a wild dingo kept following. He did not attack me and always kept his distance, but still it was sort of weird. Also, what would the dingo do at my dinner time? I decided to stay at the official camp ground which made the dingo leave me. But as soon as I left camp the next morning, the dingo was on my heels again... Seems I have made a friend there.

Fantastic hot springs
The towns: Between Alice and Darwin there are just 2 towns that are worth being called town: Tennant Creek and Katherine. There is not really much to see there but after cycling for 5 days with no shower and only packaged noodle soup these little towns with swimming pools and a supermarket can be a real attraction. I already started having hallucinations about showers and fresh fruit! In Tennant Creek I ran into 2 Mormon missionaries - these guys are everywhere! I decided to be nice and told them that I had recently been to Salt Lake City and how much I had been impressed by it. We talked for about an hour and I learnt a lot about the hard life of a missionary. And when I cycled out of Tennant Creek a car stopped for me. To my big surprise my 2 missionary friends came out and gave me tons of food - thank you so much! In both towns I stayed at a commercial campground - and that is pretty luxurious after camping in the bush for a week. There usually is a swimming pool, barbecues and a camp kitchen - and I ate lots of kangaroo steak and lamb sausages...

Katherine gorge National Park
Tropical Australia: Around Katherine the area becomes tropical. It does not look like that from the road - there you just realize that there are bigger and bigger trees and sometimes even palm trees. But Katherine has the first permanent river and around the water the vegetation is quite lush. And to my big joy there are hot springs! And to my even bigger joy they are free! So no more dust and grime - I was going to bed clean! There are also some famous National Parks like Katherine Gorge and Litchfield. All this means that you can go swimming amidst the most beautiful tropical setting: Waterfalls, palm trees, kakadus! Just beware of the crocodiles!

I with a Japanese cyclist
What else happened? I met about 7 other cyclist going the other way fighting a headwind. All of them were male and most of them Asian. I could even impress two Japanese guys with my little Japanese vocabulary. I always stayed on the Stuart Highway except for Litchfield National Park where I cycled on 42 km of dirt road in order to avoid backtracking. What can I say? I am not made for dirt roads..... Still, no bike problems whatsoever. No puncture, no broken spoke, no nothing. I love my bike.

But now I will go hiking again. I am in Darwin right now and will fly to Adelaide this weekend to tackle the Great South West Walk (250 km) and the Heysen Trail (1.200 km).

Stuart Highway: The great Nothingness

Luckily that wasn't my highway...
Most people whom I met on the Stuart Highway did not understand how I could possibly enjoy cycling 1.500 km with nothing to see in between. They always called it the great "Nothingness". Well, partly they are right. There is not really that much to see. It is all flat with a lot of red dust and scrub. Cycling there was a bit like meditation. But still, there are things that keep you entertained:

Termite mounds: There are literally millions of termite mounds out there. There are magnetic mounds (all aligned the same way), giant cathedral mounds (look like giant cathedrals) and just plain whatever mounds. They are everywhere and sometime reminded me of tomb stones on a grave yard. But this means there are also a lot of ants out there - which can be a bit of a nuisance while camping...So if you get bored, just start counting the mounds.

Daily kangaroo death toll: You should not drive around in the outback in the dark - not if you are a cyclist, because traffic will not see you and also not if you are in a car, because you will hit kangaroos. Kangaroos are night active and blinded by the cars' headlights and so every morning I could count last night's death toll... which gets pretty smelly after a couple of days roasting in the sun.

Pink Panther road house
Road houses and rest areas:  About every 100 km there is a road house with fuel, food and most importantly, water. I never had any problem getting water at these road houses which had been a major concern of mine. Because they are the only attraction in a radius of 100 km they can become really famous. There even is a "Pink Panther" Road house! The rest areas do not have any services, but they generally have water tanks, sometimes toilets and people can camp there for free. I never did because they are directly at the road and a road train passing your tent with a speed of 130 km/h and a distance of 10 meters will certainly wake you up in the middle of the night....But I restocked on water there and was always greeted very friendly by the motorists. People had already heard about me! (Hey, there are not so many single women cycling around in the middle of nowhere.) I was offered drinks and water - and usually a friendly chat.

Stuart Highway: 1.500 km across the Outback


Wicked camper
When I was about to leave Alice Springs on my bike I was not at all enthusiastic about cycling at all. Cycling in the US had not been a great experience and Dave's death in a bike accident still gave me nightmares. But at least I wanted to give it a try. It is 1.500 km from Alice Springs to Darwin and in the worst case I only had to cycle 500 km to get to the next bus stop. So sort of grudgingly I set off from Alice - and I did not have to regret it. On the contrary: My bike trip from Alice to Darwin turned out to be a wonderful experience!!! But that was mostly due to the following:

Wind:  After my wind problems in the US I had enquired about the prevailing wind directions in Australia. My old Australian friend Alan (whom I had met the year before cycling) and my warmshowers host in Alice both told me the same thing: Prevailing wind is East South East. So my original plan to cycle from Darwin to Alice was prone to be another desaster. So I decided to change cycling direction and had a tail wind most of the time. I was averaging 15 km/h + every day - as opposed to under 10 km/h in the US. I really pitied all the poor guys I met on the Stuart Highway going the other direction....

Camping spot
Terrain: Australia is mostly flat - especially the Outback! And I just loved that! No more 1.000 m elevation gains everyday. Just plain flat! The terrain gets sort of hilly towards Darwin, but by then I was nearly finished anyways. Call me a wuss - but I love flatland cycling.

Camping: The Outback is basically a huge "nothingness" - just flat brush. And luckily there are hardly any fences. If there are fences, there are also gates to cross the fences and these gates are not locked. And on top of all that there is hardly any traffic at night, so not much road noise. All you have to do is get off the road for a couple of hundred meters, duck behind some bushes and set up camp. Great!

Road train
Traffic: Traffic was so much better than I had expected. First of all there is not that much traffic. Second, most of the traffic is friendly holiday traffic. Lots of retirees who all waved at me. I kept bumping into the same people again and again. Most of the holiday people were doing about my mileage - even in a car!!! Plus Australians don't drive these monster-size RV's like Americans. They mostly have a car or truck with a little caravan behind. And the young backpackers have campervans. I loved the "wicked" campers best. This is a cheap campervan rental and all their campers have tons of graffiti on them. Great entertainment on a long ride. Of course there are the road trains. Trucks with up to 4 trailers and a length of 54 meters. These guys don't get out of their way for everyone - but they did for me on a bike. I still had to watch for oncoming traffic (because then the road trains can't get out of their way), but generally they were much less frightening than I had thought.

So life is good again on a bike!!!!!