stories • happenings • adventures

July 9, 2014

Bike Touring the Oodnadatta Track – Australia

Posted by in Adventures

This story comes from my good friend and adventure partner Dylan Kentch. Dylan is a rare breed as you’ll find out by reading this article.

On our trips together I was fortunate enough to get a glimpse at the goings-on inside his head as we bushwacked, rode and mostly stumblef-ed our way through a few backcountry Alaska bike trips. There is no body else I’d rather be cold wet and in the middle of nowhere with a bag of cookie dough than Dylan.

He’s been out bike touring for most of the past decade with a break here and there for college & work. It’s a way of life that few have managed to carve out. He’s currently in Australia, riding desolate dirt tracks since early this past winter. Below is a piece he recently sent me on Cycling the Oodnadatta Track in Southern Australia – Read slow and enjoy:

Sunday mornings were lazy in my childhood home. My mother would drink a latte from her large white mug with the grey and black cats on it. My father would use what was then an elegant coffee maker, and combine thick espresso with milk steamed in the blue pot with the long metal handle. My mother’s latte would form a skin on its surface, and as a small child I remember thinking how disgusting it was that a drink could have skin. Things fall apart: my father moved away; the cat mug broke; the blue milk pot replaced with a silver one; and it is my coffee that has skin. After the nightly pot of noodles is cooked, I drain the excess water into my titanium mug and add heaping spoonfuls of instant coffee flakes. This I drink after I’ve had my noodles and as the sun is going down. Starch from the noodle water solidifies and forms a skin across the top of my mug. I peel it off and flick it onto the sand not unlike a small, used brown condom, in both texture and appearance. This is the Oodnadatta Track in South Australia. Water is precious, and the last thing I would ever do is pour that noodle water out and onto the ground.

Oodnadatta is the hottest, driest place in all of Australia, or so says the sign at the edge of town. It was once 50.7° C here. I buy 2 liters of Coke for $6 before asking for free water, partially signifying that I know water is valuable out here and that I am not simply asking for something for nothing. The manager of the Pink Roadhouse knows I’m on a bicycle, and sees that I’ve spent some money, but the answer is still no, and I’ll have to buy whatever I want. They have none to spare. Twenty liters is $19 and it comes in two 10 liter casks, silver foil bladders inside cubic cardboard boxes. I decant this into all my bottles and bladders and water bags in front of the roadhouse’s tall windows, taking my time and making it look like the chore that it is. I cut open the space bags on the corner and suck down the last droplets for everyone inside to see; it’s a show, and I paid my money to enjoy these drops as much as I can. Years of draining boxes of wine comes in handy. And so I totter out of town with 25 liters of water, the most I’ve ever carried on a bicycle, realizing it’ll be a slow, sit down ride until I drop some of this weight, but at least I do this at 2 pounds, or 1 liter, an hour. Two days ago when I rode into William Creek it was 44°C in the shade at the pub. I swear during the day when I’m riding it’s over 50°C when the sun bounces off the dirt road. Simpson Desert National Park is east of here and it is officially closed for the summer because it gets hot and people die there. December, Southern hemisphere summer, is not the usual time for desert bike touring.

An Aboriginal man waves and yells me over at the edge of town, while I’m still getting my legs and learning to manage this newly-heavy bicycle. I ride to his porch and and his welcoming gestures. Would I like a cold beer and a chair in the shade and any ice cubes and rain water for my bottles? he asks. These are the men — all six of them, sitting around an esky filled with ice and beer and a milk carton filled with empties — who are supposed to get drunk and fight and rob me. I’ve heard this for months as I’ve ridden across Australia, both from the blatant and unapologetic racists, and also from the casually racist older white women who haven’t seen a blackfella in their country town in years. But these men are friendly and welcoming, and have ice, and water, and shade, and a chair for me. In deserts where every plant is sharp and every rock hard and sun-baked until too hot to sit on, a real and cushioned chair is surprisingly one of the things I’ve been missing most. Perhaps I’m getting soft. Ice cubes melt as nectar in my mouth. I could quote the opening lines of One Hundred Years of Solitude. The witch doctor seated next to me asks if I’m on Facebook. Everyone wants to know if I’ve seen any goannas on the road — they’re good eating — and I apologize that I’ve only seen tracks. One of the men has just driven down from Finke, where I’m thinking of riding towards, and knows all about the sand and dust up there.

I chain drink four beers and take one for the road. It is cold heaven pushing against my hot skin from the chest pocket of my shirt. I could stay here all night drinking — they will — but it’s getting late and even after months in the deserts I’m still reticent to make camp in the dark and put up my tent by headlamp. The snakes and spiders here bite hard. Maybe a kilometer out of town I turn off to the dam and nevertheless make camp in the dark and put up my tent by headlamp. Two locals blast country music from their SUV’s speakers and are in the stumble drunk stage that comes after legless. Their designated driver is chatty and amiable and sober. By now I’ve just had 2 liters of soda, 2 liters of beer and 1 liter of water, as well as 10 liters of water earlier in the day. All I can manage to pee before curling up on top of my sleeping bag is a thick dark yellow rope. This is a dry country.

Most of the songs I sing out loud to myself are late ‘90s and early ‘00s gangsta rap songs, noises to occupy a tiny space in the deserts’ big silences. Kangaroos scatter regardless of if you’re singing about smoking sherm or the hoochies that come with the money. One of my Aborigional drinking companions knew snippets about North America and was keen to know about Baltimore and Seattle, Yellowstone and California’s redwoods. I impressed him because I had been to all these places, but needed to tell him that Baltimore is not close to Seattle, more like the distance between Perth and Sydney. He wished me well on my travels and while departing noted that, for himself and his friends , “We’re the real motherfuckin’ niggas”. The delivery was perfect. It was classic NWA and I chuckle to myself reminiscing and trying to anchor the tent in the rock hard desert ground out by the dam in the dark. You are about to witness the strength of street knowledge.

The next two days into Marla are hot and empty and I don’t go to Finke and take the dirt route to Alice Springs because I cannot carry enough water to go that way. After being on the Oodnadatta Track for a week I have become accustomed to my pattern: wake up before dawn, pedal hard until noon, then collapse in whatever shade I can find until the early evening before riding again. I left my book in Leigh Creek to save weight so all I have during my siestas is scratchy ABC radio on my shortwave and NY Times Sunday crossword puzzles that I do in red pen. Like how most mini epic sagas on bicycles end, this one too finishes in anticlimax. Pavement starts in the Marla parking lot and sprinklers water the first grass I’ve seen in a week. My shirt is stiff enough from dried salt that it stands upright for a few seconds before toppling over. My ankles are bright red where dust has caked onto seven days’ worth of sweat. Who knew I had sweaty ankles until now? But no one in Marla cares about any of this or even notices. No one asks about my shit-eating grin as I drink 6 liters of bore water, shirtless and in the shade of one of the trees in the parking lot. No one asks where I’ve come from or recognizes that my sandy red mountain bike is not a pavement machine that’s been toiling up the Stuart Highway’s non-existent shoulder since Port Augusta.

It hurts when I pee. I’ve only been going twice day, sometimes three times if I have extra coffee as part of the daily three gallons of water. Minerals must be ossified up in there. In Marla I drink gallons and masturbate in the shower vigorously until whatever else of the residual desert that’s up there has been released.