(The day before this post we showed most of our Australia photos separately, here)
On a whistle stop tour of Brisbane we saw, nestled between the gleaming glass, chrome and concrete monoliths, red brick relics of bygone times. Churches and municipal buildings that document the Victorian birth of many of these towns. Staying in Sydney a little bit longer we delved beneath the high rise towers to find rows of terrace houses, churches, and curious institutes. That, together with the numerous parks, gave the place a spacious feel despite the flyover, and tunnel being built, to cope with the volume of traffic. Melbourne, with intimate lanes where eateries spread out across the road and waiters dance between pedestrians, also feels spacious with wide roads that accommodate tram lines, cycle lanes and cars. A pleasant mix of the old and new that have plenty of space to blend. And some very British (but better) public provision of toilets, benches, parks etc.
But it hasn’t been the history or lack of it that has been an inspiration in Australia but the abundance of wildlife; multitudes of marsupials that we’ve never seen before. The dazzling variety of birds swooping about, deafening at times. Flying foxes, echidna, wallabies and kangaroos, hump back whales and the occasional sighting of our immigrant friends rabbit, stoat and weasel. We finally, days before leaving, after many hours cycling with our necks craned up, genuinely saw a koala in the wild. We’d already visited Raymond Island’s koala tourist trek to tick that box, but it was awesome to see one snoozing in a mainland tree.
Having travelled for many months through Asia and South East Asia where, in rural areas especially, traditional methods of fishing and farming were still very evident, I was keen to see aspects of indigenous people, but we’ve had to seek out aboriginie heritage centres to get a view of their past, present and future. Sydney Museum spelt out the conflict and massacres that took place between the invading whites and the aboriginal people, while Rockhampton cultural centre and Melbourne Museum focused on the traditional way of life. The pride of the indigenous people was evident with videos showing younger generations learning traditional skills.
We’ve also had conversations with many Australians, and learnt more that way. I was going to write that having in-depth discussions in English is also a novelty, after so long. But we met adept English speakers in India, Thailand and Singapore. Perhaps the difference is our willingness, maybe also the locals’ too, to discuss difficult issues.
While combine harvesters, trains and trucks have replaced Asia’s scythes, oxen and carts in Queensland’s sugar cane production, if any aboriginal people have managed to cling onto traditional ways of life it will be way out in the dry centre and west, well hidden from tourists like us. That’s one thing I suppose about the sort of life presented in books like “Walkabout” – it creates an association between aboriginal life and harsh land, whereas one thing that’s now clear to us is that the best of that life was in the good lands, such as we’ve been through, that our invaders nicked for farming.
It isn’t difficult to see how conflict has arisen as European values of exploiting the land with intensive and commercial farming, logging or miners culling the land before moving on are in direct conflict with aboriginal beliefs and practises that sustained flora and fauna. The land being ‘sacred’ – look after the land and the land will look after you.
Koalas, one iconic Australian animal, are doomed if the current rate of deforestation continues. 15 years, we were told, until loss of habit will result in no more koalas in the wild. Aborigines, however, made tree bark canoes from trees where, in time, the bark grows back, just one example of where they use the environment without destroying it.
The history of the aboriginal peoples connection with the land is displayed on information boards at key locations that explain the importance of each site often stating that it had been significant sight for 40000, 50000 or 60000 years. Never do they tell of the 200 hundred years it took to destroy it.
Of course, said “European” values didn’t just affect the Australian Aboriginals, this was the era of the Scottish Highlands clearances, Irish potato famine, Napoleon and Bismark invading everywhere, and colonies. Brutish dog-eat-dog behaviour at all levels. But in the British Empire, it does seem the Australian Aboriginals were uniquely ignored, politically, as in the other new lands, the indigenous population was formally recognised – although still shot, infected, or driven out. In Australia, the indigenous population were explicitly not people but listed as fauna until 1967. Yes, Nineteen. The image of aboriginal people in a line depicting Australian fauna at Sydney Museum has, in very recent years, been removed.
Whilst the east coast has certainly got it’s fair share of hills to pedal up and down which by the end of a day is knackering, the coastal views are breathing taking. Endless expanses of golden or white beaches as far as the eye can see. Red cliffs, Clifton Sea Bridge and numerous bays with blue sea contrasted by ripples of waves were highlights along the way. As we moved south into Victoria, the land became greener and more convoluted.
‘Git ou’ the waaay”. It took a moment or two for me to decipher this advice growled at us from a vehicle as it passed, but it was one of the least offensive we’ve received. Australia has been the first country were there has been occasional direct hostility towards us as cyclists, as well as a lot of truly dreadful passing. We’d read about this, and especially the road trains, online. It does seem that a lot of Aussie drivers, especially truckers, would rather trust to luck on blind bends, than ease off the loud pedal. Aussie truckers are probably the near-worst drivers we’ve encountered, after Indian bus drivers and their Indonesian colleagues. The notorious road trains didn’t seem especially bad, probably because they’re only on relatively empty roads with few bends.
One of the problems, we think, is over ambitious claims or misconceptions about the cycle tracks which may lead car drivers to consider that we are well provided for. Well, provided for we are by: disjointed, frequently poorly maintained, unsignposted and, at roundabouts in Cairns, the outright dangerous positioning of a cyclist should we use it. Sometimes we can use the hard shoulder, but it doesn’t always exist, and oftimes seems to have been deliberately ruined with road features placed down the centre of it. The concept of cycle tracks is a good one but they have to prove useful to cyclists. In the city of Newcastle they were, but elsewhere a lot of the facilities, as in England, had an air of local authority quota filling, and especially, almost no direction signs. Locals only, perhaps. But further south in Victoria, a series of rail trails have made very pleasant and productive traffic free cycling. Overall, in terms of road safety and comfort, most things improved steadily as we worked our way south.
Much more pleasantly memorable are the many helpful, friendly and very supportive folk who have stopped on their way, to give us gratefully received advice on better routes or attractions in the area. One such lady had us back track half a kilometer, head this way then that until we found an old mining road. It was right where the map displayed it but had failed to list it as a cycle track and too many such dirt roads aren’t suitable for our narrow tyres. Gebber Road, as it was called, was a good quality dirt road that took us through beautiful woodland (with numerous sightings of goanna, and a fine snake), past fields and mangrove swamps before emerging, several hours later along another small coastal road on our way to Tea Gardens (yes, that’s its name).
Yet more memorable are the folks we’ve stayed with, from Warm Showers, friends of friends, and folk we met on the road. Always interesting to talk to, too. Nick, Andrew, Mitch & Tanya, Grant, Bernie, Tony & Laurelle, Kirsten & Warwick – thank you all.
We’ve had plenty of moments where we’ve felt we weren’t going to cover the distance from Cairns to Melbourne within our three month visa. But, we’ve made it with time to spare managing to see many chosen sights along the way, and as so often, learning at least a little about the land, its wildlife, and its people.
Tears welled up in my eyes as I sat on the promenade bench gazing out towards the sea, seagulls waiting expectantly. It could have been home.
We were like kids in a candy store picking out lunch as old favorites competed for our attention – coleslaw, hummus, fresh rolls, all there ready and waiting.
Our fabulous warm showers host, Nick, eased us back into civilization with his bachelor pad where his no clutter policy didn’t extend to the workshop.
Following on from bike servicing, back servicing and a fantastic Barrier Reef dive trip we finally made a move where the sunshine state once again propelled us back home with three days of grey skies and drizzle. Our must see list dwindled: tree kangaroos that come out in the sunshine, cassowaries in the car park “just” 4 km away down a now mud track and platypus where we arrived at the camping book-in point four minutes too late. Rules is rules, I just apply them was the retort from the proprietor who showed no compassionate interpretation of them on this dismal day. Even the omnipresent kangaroos were nowhere to be seen. But the trail of unfortunate road kill victims enticed a splendid assortment of birds of prey down to the bitumen as we pedalled our way along. Low density woodland and grass scrub providing grazing for beef cattle and a few horses too.
Having spent several days cycling through the Atherton Tablelands we headed back down to the coastal road. Not so remote as we cycle down south, we hope, but towns and roadhouses are still few and far between. As you’d expect the major highway is generally flatter but the traffic has increased considerably. You get used to the traffic, one blog article states.
At one campsite Gid came back from the shower with a spring in his step to declare that John, a grey nomad from a couple of vans down the park, had offered to show us on the map where we could get onto smaller roads by the coast. We tried in vain to find the place starting with Bene… something on our Queensland map. John joined us a little later spreading his ancient torn maps on the table where his accumulated notes told of adventures past. There he said, pointing to a town on the map just above Sydney. That’s the town; there’s the road. That’s good too, he enthused moving his finger down a bit. A little hilly though, helpfully writing hilly on the map. He added a few more notes as he continued down the coast explains the features as he went. Very kindly, he left his maps with us but we couldn’t help giggling that our hoped for escape from the main highways was six or seven weeks away and in a different state.
Wind lifted the shirts off our backs as we sailed past the Whitsunday Islands, pedal pushing all the way. A stab of regret shot through me as I visualized the tall ship, Solway Lass, that had been highly recommended as the perfect way to cruise between the National Park islands. Reality struck home. Firstly, it was stunningly expensive for budget conscious cyclists. Secondly, we’d only just got going and were very aware of time constraints. Thirdly, should we need another reason, I’d been extremely nauseous on our one day reef trip despite having taken sea sick pills.
Hotels with the occasional 3* luxury are a thing of the past. Now we’re scouting the electronic devices for camp sites, free if possible, with the latest ‘3* luxury’ being paid for sites with a shower. Aged backs grumble at our crawl-in tent. Ground level cooking, eating and packing all take their toll at the end of a day in the saddle. Campsite camaraderie, where spare food and water are readily offered and simple exchanges of a few words, are now deeper conversations. Another factor eating away at our time constraints as the grey nomads are only too happy to wile away a bit of time and keen to share adventures.
We’ve taken a while to get our heads round distances and the endless kilometers of nothing. Towns sprawl out with scrub land between single storey homes, dead-end roads lead out back, well worn wooden buildings and old Queenslander homes adding a touch of history along the way.
It’s around 3,700km from Cairns to Melbourne, by the coastal route. Let’s hope we don’t find it too tiring…
Strange – Our overriding memory of Java is the unpleasant major road conditions. But the photos tell a different story. There’s plenty good in Java, but probably a bicycle isn’t the most reassuring mode of transport to pick for it.
This was pure luck! Somewhere in mid-Java, we’d managed to escape the manic main road for an hour or two. In a small village, we chanced upon this event in a little roadside space. It was just villagers and a few passers-by, as far as we know, so we weren’t invisible ourselves!
Before Java became Islamic, there was a major Buddhist complex here. Abandoned for centuries, and somewhat vandalised, it was “rediscovered” and restored relatively recently. Apparently the carvings showing saucy Buddhists have been covered over during the restoration.
Before Java became Islamic, there was a big Hindu civilisation on the island. Whereas Bali has remained mostly Hindu, this temple complex on Java was long abandoned.
Along the jungle road and across the Malaysian border and we’ve left behind Thailand’s hotpants, obesity crisis and nasal sing song, where intonation is everything. The differences are sudden and quite stark.
The Malaysians often wear more, especially the ladies, dressed head to foot in something voluminous and Islamically modest. Many men wear little pill caps, as we’ve seen before in the ‘stans’ and a few places in India. It’s not universal though – there are still shirtless men in rural areas, and hotpants in towns. Malaysia is a predominantly Moslem country, compared to Buddhist Thailand, although as we saw later it has very substantial non-moslem minorities. There are many mosques, but also numerous Chinese Buddhist temples, Indian Hindu temples and some churches.
On the road, Thailand’s population of 8 motorbikes and 2 pickups in every 10 vehicles is replaced, unfortunately, with a more European mix: lots of cars. It makes the roads feel a lot more cramped and dangerous, although the driving is nothing to complain about.
Trying to avoid the main roads has lead to some delightful routes along minor coastal roads and weaving across the plentiful lanes dissecting the numerous and expansive paddy fields; water monitors to the left, water monitors to the right. Occasionally one has scampered ahead of us before taking the plunge.
As we progressed south it became more difficult to avoid the ‘principle highways’ full of roaring traffic especially as we were all squeezed between the mountains and around the many inlets and rivers. At one point, two of our three electronic navigation devices said, ‘No’, to a way across the river avoiding a main road but Maps.me clearly showed there is a passage. At lunch we quizzed a local guy who spoke reasonable English but he was not interested in the idea of a river crossing. Nothing on the other side except palm plantations, he said, and was clearly in favour of the main road up and round the inlet.
An inner glow welled up inside me, on the other side is a palm plantation: small lanes, no traffic, trees for cover. It couldn’t be better! But did a ferry exist, as there evidently wasn’t a bridge? We set off with our fingers crossed. 1.5 km wasn’t too far to go to find out. As we rounded the corner onto the waters edge the ramp on the other side was clearly visible. Flapping arms directed us further along the road where we came upon an opening between workshops and boat houses. Initially it didn’t look too promising but tucked in at the edge of this broad, rope-strewn slipway was a rickety jetty with a short, dumpy, roof topped boat with a section cut out of its side – the ferry. In a jiff we’d jiggled the bikes across the random, ill fitting planks of the gang way, through the hole onto the ferry, to the amusement of the folks already on board with their small motorbikes lined up ready to go.
There’s a lot of unhappiness worldwide about the way the rainforests are being cut down and replaced with palm oil plantations. Malaysia is a prime example. The same comments probably apply to the old rubber plantations too, and coconut palms. But although they’re undiverse compared to rainforest, they’re not so bleak. Other plants and trees crowd the edges of tracks and irrigation ditches, we see monitors, monkeys and squirrels. Brahminy kites and crested serpent eagles patrol the treetops, while purple herons and kingfishers line the ditches.
After all our careful planning the South Westerly monsoon has come as a bit of a surprise. Cycling in it has thrown up new challenges. We’ve always attempted to set off early each morning but regularly fail (Gideon sez that’s not a new game, we played it with sea kayaks too). Now there is further motivation. Not infrequently, as the day progresses the black thunder clouds chase us along the roads, the rumbling of thunder close behind, snapping at our heels. The first drops of rain quickly develop into rigid rods beating down upon our backs. Heads low peering forwards as we spy for somewhere to cower; we’ve been remarkably lucky at finding shelter. Mindful of the time however, eventually we have to grit our teeth and set off again. Cars whizz past through newly formed pools and suddenly we’re wearing them. It’s warm of course, but the soggy shorts chafe. Bikes gears and brakes pick up destructive grit and grime.
Our first stop was at Georgetown, a UNESCO listed ex-colonial town on Penang island. Penang was British long before Malaysia’s sultanates fell under the control of the East India Co. or the empire. The island was nominally uninhabited when the sultan offered it, in 1786, to the East India Company in exchange for protection from Siam (which the EIC failed to provide). The EIC brought in a lot of South Indian labour, whose descendants are still running microcosms of India all over the state, and attracted a lot of Chinese, who to this day are the largest ethnic group in Georgetown. It seems quite often in Malaysia that the ethnic mix, and therefore culture, in the cities, is quite different from the country, which is more Malay, and more Islamic.
Whilst I found it fascinating that in such a small area it was possible to find half a dozen architectural styles of shop-houses spanning 300 years it was the clan jetties that captured my imagination most. From cargo landing jetties to the addition of cargo stores to workers shelters to family/clan residences in a little over a hundred years. Built on stilts at the waters edge they cunningly avoid the land tax. Today they sit at the base of immaculate white towering sky scrapers making an awkward mix between old and new. Each clan jetty traces its origins – and the origins of its inhabitants – to a particular province/region in China.
Alas, while on a bus up the coast of Penang, thieves struck, and Gideon’s phone and bank card were stolen. Gideon spent the next couple of hours using Clare’s phone to lock out the old one, change passwords, and call the bank. It was easy enough to replace the phone nearby, and there was little data on it that wasn’t stored online. A new bank card was ordered, which, thankfully, Hailey sent out to our planned Singapore stop. The only ongoing difficulty after a few days was the loss of the UK SIM card, which unfortunately being Vodafone, meant hours and hours of meaningless and useless “customer service” before establishing that probably it couldn’t be replaced without visiting their shops in the UK. The other loss was the really nice phone case I’d made myself – the new phone has to make do with a batik souvenir one, helpfully modified by a little India tailor.
From Georgetown south along the west coast, the Malaysian peninsula is populated and urbanised. The lengthways hills limit the small road options. Little gems like Pontian Kecil, which still encapsulate the Malaysian seafaring and fishing heritage, are few and far between, without unwanted detours. Still, it was our choice, to avoid the hilly Cameron Highlands in the middle, and if we hadn’t wanted to see the cities, the quieter east coast was available. So the cycling latterly has been a bit crap, even though Malaysian drivers are generally slower and more considerate than British ones.
Our second stop in Malaysia was the capital, Kuala Lumpur. With over 7 million souls in its greater area, it is around the 50th biggest city in the world. We’ve increasingly been using Travelfish for city information, as it’s helpfully concise. In this case, it directed us to Chinatown, where we easily found a cheap and comfy hotel. When we strode out in the morning, we stumbled over a good selection of the city’s sights.
British Empire architects seem to have enjoyed themselves with Mughal styles and motifs. These Edwardian low rises are now at the foot of steel and glass towers, many of which, again, refer to Islamic forms. Weaving around the buildings is a modern throng of international people appearing from busy roads, pavements, metro system, monorail. The heat outdoors under the sun is intense, but tall buildings provide shade; shops, malls, hotels and up-market restaurants compete to impress with their sophisticated air conditioning.
Melaka (Malacca) was our final stop in Malaysia. Unlike our other halts, it seemed single-mindedly a tourist town, and little else. Being the weekend it was crowded with tourists from KL and Singapore, pushing the already high prices up a notch or two. A one day dash was sufficient to see yet more notable houses of worship, China town, the Jonker Walk night market and, from multiple other choices, we ventured into the maritime museum. A smaller version of Nelson’s Victory provided the setting for an informative trail through the passage of time in Malaysian sea faring.
Some very pretty cycle rickshaws in Melaka, each with a sound and light show.
After Malaysia, to the city-state of Singapore, a simple bridge/border crossing, no visa complications, and one of the wealthiest places in the world.