The Land of John Wayne

The United States has never been on my ‘must visit’ list. The awe and wonder has long since gone with the US continually in the limelight; splashed across the media for this reason or that. The States felt some how over familiar, un-exotic, and ‘the easy way’. Gid had occasionally posed the idea of going east across South America, denying that it would be his first choice for our way home; just waiting for me to bite, I felt.

But an hour or so after we arrived in LA, I was hooked. It didn’t have one or two beach volleyball courts, there were twelve of them lined up waiting for players. Roller blades, bikes, skateboards all zoomed past; the place was alive. As we cycled toward our host’s place in Korea Town, Gid pointed out the Hollywood sign on the hill in the distance. What a perfect start! Hollywood boulevard, Sunset boulevard, Route 66 here we come.

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We were lucky to be staying with an enthusiastic local, Oscar, who was generous enough to take us on a guided tour for a day. Whizzing about on our bikes we visited the Griffiths Observatory, downtown, rode the metro with our bikes (yah boo LT) … and had the best tacos in town.

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Under our own steam we wandered along Hollywood Boulevard, spotting the stars names in the pavement sidewalk. Besides a spattering of tourists like us, there were scores of movie wannabes, in costume, hustling for paid photo shoots. Instead, more economically, Clare opted to lie down with Rod Stewart and Burt Lancaster, and fire off selfies. She passed on Donald Trump though: he used to host a talk show, apparently. What have we missed?

 

  • Wide, long, hot, dusty streets – check
  • Grids, intersections, traffic lights – check
  • Glitzy mall – check
  • Elaborate Christmas decorations – check
  • Spanish spoken maybe more than English – check
  • Stretch limos, Ferraris; and Porsche runabouts – check
  • Movie cameras in use on the street – check
  • Black & white squad cars – check
  • Big red fire engines blasting through intersections – check
  • Palms and bougainvillea – check
  • Huge pickups with nothing in and rumbly engines – check
  • Empty lots and abandoned shops – check
  • Body beautiful workouts on the beach – check
  • Joggers left, right, and centre – check

Gid was struck by the poverty evident amongst the splendour. Street walkers riffled through the bins, make-shift shelters filled hidey holes, and tents appeared along the concrete floodways. Shanty towns, where structures were covered with random sheets of plastic, that could have been straight out of India, filled areas of wasteland. Such ad-hoc homes were especially evident when we followed the cycleway along the enormous culverted drain – and each tent seemed to have a bicycle or several.

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We’d chosen Cycle Route 90 – the USA Southern Tier coast to coast crossing, because during the fall it’s run as a commercial trip. Local ‘guided trips’ we’ve done before are picked for their scenery, points of interest and traffic free roads so we hoped this would be too. We would be cycling November to February, so we hoped staying well south would avoid frozen toes (and many mountains too).

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To reach Route 90 we rode down the California coast, with eye watering camping costs but beautiful coastal views, to the starting point in San Diego, then turned eastwards and set out through California towards the desert. To our relief, camping costs plummeted, often being free and the occasional motel became affordable.

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This was a different USA entirely. Small towns, widely spaced in the hills and sands. The days are short, so we often cycled through sunset, and occasionally met the dawn when we crawled out of the tent in the morning. Most days we meet at least one other cycle tourist, although most of them seem to be heading for South America rather than California. It’s a playground for the local big cities too. Motor bikes, quad bikes, buggies: big, medium and small career around sending out plumes of sand up behind them. Endlessly, we’re passed by towed buggies and all-terrain vehicles behind monster pickups and huge RVs. Unfortunately, while American freight drivers (“semis” mostly) seem responsible enough in passing or waiting, the RV boys seem unconscious of their width, bow-wave and tail suck; it’s a good job the roads are mostly wide and lightly trafficked.

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With lots of space to leave things where they are, and a climate that’s kind to buildings, metalwork and even mummified roadkill, there’s lots of photogenic old stuff to take pictures of.

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One disappointment so far, is that wildlife seems very timid.  We’ve not seen much although, the humming birds were rather special and much too fast for our cameras . On the highway, there’s not even roadkill, until just recently a couple of flat & desiccated coyotes. Maybe morelive beasties will turn up further east.

Writing this, here we are in Wickenburg, AZ, a town of cowboys and rodeos – team roping capital of the world, it claims. But frustratingly, it’s Thanksgiving Day, so no rodeo today. Worse still, the local shops have run out of turkey, except for whole frozen ones. Chicken will have to do, cooked on the camping stove on the veranda of this comfy motel.

Down and Out

(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.

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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.

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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.

 

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Mosaics were on display at the Eden Killer Whale Museum

 

 

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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

Australia – Photos

Wow – what a lot of photos we took in Australia – getting on for a thousand each. Well, here’s a selection. There’s even more wildlife photos a few of which we’ll upload to the Birds and Beasties pages someday.

The Scenic Views, Part 1

The Scenic Views, Part 2

On the Road

Urban

Whale Watching

Hervey Bay, since you ask. Several times we saw whales from the coastal cliffs, down much of the SE coast. The humpbacks migrate that way.

The Best of the Rest of the Wildlife

The Holiday Snaps

End

Bali and the Dragons

We cycled only a couple of days in Bali, to Jimbaran, just south of the airport, for a comfy, cheap, tourist hotel, and especially, just round the corner from a really useful bike shop. That Surly Ogre with that bike packing kit was probably perfect for Sumatra.
From Bali we took a bikeless side trip to Flores and Rinca, where be dragons.

Clare in Bali

Gideon in Bali

Clare in Flores

Clare on the Boat to Rinka

Gideon in Flores

Clare’s Dragons

Gideon’s Dragons

Then we packed up, and probably marking the end of our most adventurous travels, left Asia and its bustle, noise, and low prices, for Australia.

Toughing it out around Lake Toba

A flat route round the world I had never expected to find but gratuitous hill climbing is not for me.
We tasted hills near the start of our trip with a slice of ‘the castle route’ in Germany and after an extended trip along the Danube we were reintroduced to arduous peddle pushing when travelling south through Bulgaria. Since then we’ve travelled across Turkey, woven our way across the high lands in Azerbaijan, missed the Pamirs and the Himalayas due to ill health, visas and snow, gone up and down again through Myanmar and into Thailand before reaching my high spot – cycling along the coast looking out through the palm trees across the golden sands to the waves gently tickling the shoreline. But then I always have been a sucker for the sea.
Gid was trying to tempt me into agreeing to the mountain range in Northern Sumatra so we bargained – flat in Malaysia, missing the, I’m told, beautiful Cameron Highlands but seeing the historical towns along the west coast and going for the volcanic mountain range in Sumatra.
From Singapore we took a quick ferry to Batam, where an Indonesian cyclists, Zainal, and his family, kindly hosted us for three nights, while he helped us sort out our long ferry journey to Medan in Sumatra. After disembarking from the PELNI ferry, we headed west to Bukit Lawang, one of the best spots to see Orangutans. It used to be a rehabilitation centre for them, and a few still hang about, though living wild. It was another guided hike, and another expensive day, once the guides had finished arguing in public about who was to book the guiding. Excellent jungle walk and sightings though.
With the Orangutan spotting done and dusted we moved on the meat of the island tour; the volcanic mountain range that forms the north-south “spine” of Sumatra. Having assiduously tried to digest the verbal instructions from Matthew and Hans, as the smaller roads are often not on either electronic or paper maps, one wrong turning led to two days of savage conditions. Despite what I’ve said above I don’t give up easily but thought I was finally beaten here. Tracks that are more like river beds with smooth mini boulders and large rounded stones combined with a heavy downpour and the going gets tuff. At slow speeds tyres fail to grip and heavy bikes slide sideways. The local’s small motorbikes coped admirably, but we saw no three or four wheelers for hours.
Mid afternoon and our 100 km destination was light years away. Gid retorted that we knew it was going to be a long day as he grit his teeth and set to.
Taking shelter from the rain at a local eatery resulted in a fabulous outcome. The locals agreed there was no way we were going to reach Berestagi but one young lad said we could stay the night at his family home. One hour later, with even more muddy tracks and bike pushing, we arrived to a fabulous welcome.
Jusia, our young hero continued his good deeds the following day when he helped us both push our bikes up even more impossible tracks with the finale, a 1km long 1 in 3 track covered in slime which took our young muscle bound hero and two other helpers to get us to the top. It took all morning to get clear of the tracks and reach the road. We were shattered. During lunch, at the bottom of Berestagi hill, it started belting down again and didn’t really stop. Two tree branches and a fence came down as a squall went through. Once the worst had passed we set off, but caved in as soon as we saw a place to halt. Matthew later told us we’d been in Sumatra’s main brothel district, which explains some oddities of the accommodation. Midday day three we finally reached Berestagi … but hey – ho we knew it was going to be a long day.
Berestagi is one of those towns that tries to make a tourist’s silk purse out of not a lot. See the picture of the monument below, unusual in that it depicts Dutch troops … and is still standing. We saw a great grey plume over Mount Sinabung, to the west, but failed to take a photo as it was behind a load of overhead wires. By the time we’d cleared those, the plume was dispersed. Closest we’ve been to a real eruption!
Finally we began to reap the rewards of our labours. Our first accommodation was a campsite looking down above Lake Toba where we dusted off the tent and admired the curvatious mountains emerging from the waters edge. Well, “mountains”, actually they’re the edge of the gigantic volcanic caldera (crater) that Lake Toba fills. We couldn’t see the far side, it’s that big.
We easily found the ferry from Parapat to Tuk Tuk on Samosir Island, glided across the lake for a sunset hour, before collapsing into one of the many guest houses for a two day rest. The guidebooks were right; Tuk Tuk is ideal for doing nothing, and very scenic.
After two days rest, we started to make our way round the island; the panoramic views from the top of the volcanic mountain range stretching out across the water were truly spectacular. The frequent recession of mountains disappearing into the distance and cloud covered peaks a stone’s throw above our heads. Lush and varied foliage folding it’s way in and out of the grooves ascending from the water. Trees, creepers and even ferns at lofty heights above our heads. Occasional terracing attesting to man’s diligence.
Coming back down to the waters edge we saw entire villages out working the paddy fields: reaping, thrashing, threshing, ploughing, planting to keep the rice yield going.
Finally, I had to agree, it had been some of the most spectacular cycling we’ve done.

Route: Bukit Lawang, Namo Kelling (home), nr Sikiben (brothel) , Merek (Sapo Juma campsite), Parapat (just for ferry) , Tuk Tuk (rest stop). To exit Samosir we cycled to the south of the Island, stayed a crummy night at Nainggolan, before catching the morning ferry to Belige (Balige). This ferry isn’t on any map, another gratefully accepted tip from Matthew. From Belige was 6 days of hot, hilly, wiggly cycling to Bukittinggi, simply following the main road. A couple of days out of Belige we’d left the Christian area behind, and encountered the difficulties of cycletouring through Ramadan. All the roadside and small town eateries were closed during daylight. Shops were open, but finding somewhere lonely to eat “discreetly” was blooming hard on the Trans-Sumatran Highway as there’s houses and people everywhere. Not too many places to stay, either. The actual road wasn’t too busy on this stretch.

Camel trek – Thar desert

It was with great excitement that I climbed into the jeep to set off on our camel trek. That lasted until I saw the camels and started to wonder what were we doing now. The camels were loaded up, all we had to do was hop on. That was where the trouble started. With no stirrups to help, how was I going to get my leg over that hump. And this camel is as tall as a pony – when it’s still sitting down.
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The first couple of hours felt rather traumatic. I was so thrilled to be going on a camel trek, I wanted to snap away as we went but was too scared to take my hands off the saddle.  This was compounded by the terrible itch that, it was clear, my camel had.  He regularly half stumbled / lurched into a step, first his front leg kicked back then the back kicked forward but neither could reached this itch.
As time progressed I did get used to it and my camel husbandry improved; we were able to productively assist with managing and loading/ unloading the camels during our lunch break and at the end of the day. The camels wandered off if unhobbled and would have to be rounded up. Gid’s camel, even when hobbled, still made a break for it. The camel was tied into a sitting position, using his rein running down his chest to the hobble rope, only to shuffle along on his haunches. We started using the foot loops, which helped a lot, although locals don’t use them. By day three Gid, who was altogether more confident with the camels, was going solo and I could take photos at a trot.
The trip itself was awesome. We rode the camels, for an hour or two at a time, along tracks through desert scrub, across sandy sections and over dunes, visiting the odd village as we went.
The villagers are used to tourists so we caused some excitement but weren’t mobbed. Rather fabulously we were invited into homes and regularly offered chai which was made on an open hearth in the corner of their courtyard – homes here are designed primarily to keep the sun off and the goats out – any breeze is most welcome.  Most people were happy to pose for photos; some performed a mini concert. Even very old people came out to see us. It was delightful to get a glimpse into village life. A small donation was always exchanged: 50 rupees for chai or photos, or 200 for a mini concert. To put this in context, a  labourer might earn 250 rupees a day, that’s about €4, so a couple of tourist visits in a day is a big bonus, especially at present in Mr Modi’s cash crisis.
Children repeatedly asked for ‘school pen, school pen’. One 15 year old lad, able to speak some English, told us there was a village school. The teacher might come on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, he said, but then miss Thursday. He also told us he couldn’t read or write. That, it would appear, is not uncommon. Our guide, Harish, who had picked up English from tourists, proclaimed that he could not read or write but his younger brother could because school had opened, in his village, in 2011. Our second guide, Saleem, couldn’t spell his own name for us when he asked us to mention him in our reviews.
The desert camp experience was fantastic.  We learnt several desert life ‘tricks of the trade’ such as hollowing out a bed in the sand and, in winter, lining it with covered stones from the fire for extra warmth and how to catch a goat to milk it for fresh milk in the chai (someone else’s goat, that is, so it may be, ahem, not entirely welcome). ‘Washing up’ with sand we’re already familiar with from our background in canoeing and kayaking trips but it was a first for sleeping on dunes under the stars with gerbils scurrying around in the shrubs behind us.
The Thar desert is the most populated desert in the world. The Indira Gandhi canal must have done much to improve the water supply but, when the rains fail, as had been the case this year, the crops don’t grow and we passed a few ploughed fields where nothing was growing. Harish had to reach deep to get water from the storage tank. But it seems to be being managed – people and animals get enough to drink, and some fields are irrigated.
There’s quite a bit of wildlife, too, although apart from birds, we only saw gerbils, chipmunks and beetles, during the actual camel trek. There were several different large birds of prey, and also Egyptian Vultures. The high point was a lunch spot near to an eagle’s nest in a tree, we saw them visiting their chicks from a distance, but when Gid tried hiding behind a tree about 70m away, the parents spotted him, and waited on some rocks a km away before returning. So not much in the way of photos from that encounter.
End.

Agricultural Observations

Agriculture and Wildflowers

As we’ve pedalled across Europe, several trends are quite clear.

Firstly, I’m writing this in Serbia, on 4th June. Barley in the fields is nearly ripe, and wheat is well grown. Walnut trees – there are loads – have their fruit half grown. The locals are harvesting cherries and strawberries in great abundance. So the seasonal effect of going south is clear. I expect in August everything here will be brown and dead, as John Bull revs up his combine harvester. It’s rather the reverse of our 2014 Kent to JOG ride, where we followed, then overtook, England and Scotland’s harvest. Added later: We cycled through the harvest in Turkey (June/July). Most of Turkey is quite elevated, so the harvest wasn’t as extra early as one might expect. In Uzbekistan (October) the grain harvest was long done. But at the end of October, in the Wakham and Panj valleys, it looked as if the grain harvest was only recently done, probably the growing season starts pretty late there.

Second, from France thru to Serbia, there’s a lot more wildflowers than are tolerated in the UK: England’s farmland seems sterile by comparison. There are differences as we travel- German and Austrian crops are weed free, but they have a lot of deep verges and wildflower hay meadows. From Hungary on, there’s still a fair bit of unmechanised farming and, for example, fields left fallow or poppies in barley crops, contrasting with occasional big, clean (sterile) acres, presumably where big Ag is getting involved.

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