Through the red centre

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.

After lunch we make tracks to the iconic Devils Marbles where we explore a landscape filled with incredible rust-red boulders of all shapes and sizes. This is a sacred and spiritual place for Indigenous traditional owners and is known as Karlu Karlu, which translates to ‘round boulders’. These ancient granite rocks are approximately 1700 million years old and are perched precariously atop one another – a rather strange sight in an otherwise flat landscape.

At Tenant Creek we unload the bikes for our first ride and Ben gives us advice about dealing with the road trains on Stuart Highway. I’m daunted by the prospect of these monster trucks, but find they are not too bad – I actually appreciate the helpful “pull” sensation as they speed past and get used to the sudden invisible barrier of air that hits me as they travel by in the opposite direction.

The traffic is also fairly sporadic and most vehicles give us a wide berth, so it’s a pleasant first ride of 29km to Threeways Roadhouse. The late afternoon sunshine casts a golden light across the sparse landscape of Spinifex grasses and Mulga bushes.

On our second day, we cycle 38km in the morning, followed by another long drive (our siesta during the hottest part of the day), before getting back onto the bikes late afternoon for a 26km ride into Daly Waters. Each day there’s a variety of options for rides and there’s no pressure to cycle a great distance, unless you want to. At any time you can opt out and get back into the support vehicle.

During the drives, Ben regales us with tales of intrepid explorers and pioneers that first travelled this area. Explorer John McDouall Stuart successfully led the first expedition to cross Australia’s interior from south to north in 1862 (on his third attempt). It was just south of Daly Waters that he encountered incredibly harsh terrain, particularly the dense lancewood forest, and his progress slowed to about a kilometre a day. The Stuart Highway (also known as Explorer Highway) is named for him, and the Overland Telegraph Line (linking Adelaide to Europe, via Darwin) was built along this route.

Fortunately for us, the bike ride is not nearly as tortuous as Stuart’s journey and our evening in Daly Waters is truly memorable. We enjoy the famous ‘beef and barra barbeque’ at the Daly Waters Pub, while being entertained by the ‘Chook Man’, who sings some classic Aussie bush songs and then, inexplicably, puts a chicken on his head for photographs. It’s surreal, but maybe it’s an ‘outback’ thing.

After an early morning ride out of Daly Waters, we drive to Mataranka for a soak in the hot springs at the lesser-known, but very picturesque, Bitter Springs. Although it’s a baking hot day, and most of us would rather jump into cold water, it’s a nice interlude before our afternoon ride into Katherine Gorge. This is the best ride of the trip so far and we enjoy some freewheeling on the undulating terrain before the road drops spectacularly into the gorge.

The rest day in Katherine Gorge isn’t exactly inactive, as people go canoeing or hiking; but it’s relaxing and the campground is shady and has a pool. At dusk, Sharon, from Byron Bay, leads us in a session of yoga, while wallabies hop around our tents. The following morning we wake to a cacophony of birdsong – blue-winged kookaburras, apostlebirds, great bowerbirds and rainbow lorikeets complete the chorus. I’m sad to leave, but I’m also keen for some real outback cycling on the dirt roads of Kakadu National Park.

As we set off for Gunlom Falls I’m anxious about riding on the corrugated surface and, for the first time ever, I enjoy the uphill sections more than the downhill. I don’t want to pick up too much speed in case I lose control of the bike; but eventually I get the hang of the technique and it’s a really fun ride.

The road descends to the picturesque South Alligator River, where vegetation is lush and tropical. It’s tempting to linger, except for the forewarning that saltwater crocodiles also enjoy this tranquil place, so I push on.

At Gunlom Falls, the plunge pool is wonderfully free of ‘salties’ and we enjoy a refreshing swim beneath a trickling waterfall. Afterwards, we hike up a steep path to the top of the falls for a beautiful sunset view across the escarpment, and then, to top off a great day, we have one of the most delicious meals ever cooked in a campfire – roast chicken and vegetables; followed by apple crumble!

The following day we cycle 12km through burnt woodlands dotted with hundreds of giant termite mounds, before hiking into Barramundi Gorge through a monsoon forest. Our reward is another refreshing swim in a series of spectacular plunge pools above a waterfall.

In the evening, after setting up camp in Cooinda, we go on a wildlife cruise on Yellow Waters billabong. This is one of the highlights of the trip as we spot crocodiles (of the saltwater and freshwater variety) and my two favourite birds – the jabiru and the comb-crested jacana. Our boat returns to the jetty just as the sun sinks below the horizon; the deep-orange sky reflecting onto the tranquil waters.

We have one last ride the following morning before we head to Darwin; a beautiful 45km jaunt to Nourlangie Rock. In particular, the last 12km are spectacular as the ancient rocky outcrop looms high above us. Once again, Ben is storyteller as we wander along the trails admiring Indigenous art sites and then hike to a lookout for incredible views. Kakadu National Park covers nearly 20,000 square kilometres and we’ve barely scratched the surface. But one thing is certain, there’s no better way to see it than by bike.

This article was first published in Ride On (June-July 2011)

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2 thoughts on “Through the red centre

    • I must admit I thought the days on the Stuart Highway might not be so great, but I ended up loving the whole trip. Each day had something different & you notice more when travelling by bike… so what might seem monotonous in a car definitely isn’t on a bike 🙂

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