My head is chock full of instructions – when you hit the sand, drop into a low gear and pedal furiously; on the corrugated sections, relax your wrists and don’t grip the handlebars too tightly; and most importantly, keep your mouth shut to avoid swallowing one of the 10,000 different insects species that live out here. I’m not sure if that’s an exaggeration, but Kakadu National Park has plenty of other wildlife, so why not. I keep my mouth shut, just in case, and commence riding.
At first, I’m concentrating so intently on technique that I don’t take much notice of my surrounds, but as I grow in confidence, I glance around. This is a harsh, but strikingly beautiful landscape – burnt-red soil, rocky outcrops, and a forest of eucalypts (including Stringybark and Darwin Woolybutt trees). I remember it distinctly from an around-Australia-trip I did years ago, but this is the first time I’ve seen it by bike.
Remote Outback Cycle (ROC) Tours, as the name suggests, take participants to some of Australia’s most remote and spectacular locations – including Kakadu in the Northern Territory, the Kimberley in Western Australia, Flinders Ranges in South Australia, and the Daintree Rainforest in Queensland. So, when my sister, Lynn, suggested that we do their Alice Springs to Darwin tour, I didn’t take much convincing.
On a brisk August morning we stand on a deserted corner in downtown Alice Springs waiting for others participants to arrive. We are both a little nervous that they will all be serious cyclists and put us to shame, particularly as we haven’t done much training. Sure enough, the first person to arrive is retiree Don, from Western Australia, resplendent in his lycra cycling gear, and he looks capable of riding 100km without any effort at all.
Fortunately, when others arrive, we realise there’s a good mix of people of all ages and abilities and, as the tour gets underway, we’re already enjoying a camaraderie that seems to flow naturally on these types of active adventure tours.
Day one is a long drive of about 500km, with only a short ride at the end of the day, but there’s a good reason for this. First, we’re escaping the freezing winter mornings of Central Australia by getting as far north as possible for our first night of camping, and second, there’s really not much to see between Alice Springs and Tenant Creek, except for the Devils Marbles and a few quirky towns.
Wycliffe Well, for example, is certainly quirky. Established in the 1860s for its reliable water source (which was useful on the stock route and for the establishment of the telegraph line between Adelaide and Darwin), the town is now infamous as the UFO Capital of Australia. Our guide, Ben, is quick to point out there’s also a very extensive range of beer on sale at the pub and perhaps this is a more logical explanation for the numerous UFO sightings here. Fortunately, the only strange creatures we encounter are those featured in colourful wall murals and cheesy sculptures. Even the Australia Post letter box is decorated with a ‘little green man’. Mulder and Scully, eat your heart out.