I spend the past week doing the Menindee Lakes and Darling River run in the New South Wales Outback. It was my first serious Outback sojourn on the moto, but it wasn’t that serious, there are many other significant tracks to explore in Australia, but that would take another whole level of preparation, including expensive mods on the moto (and proper Outback tyres!)
The good thing about exploring NSW Outback currently is that it is relatively cool, there is lots of water about, and the Menindee Lakes are full, as are the rivers and wetlands. This is because of La Nina, the ‘big rain’ that comes after long dry periods. And with the big rain, come the birds and the wildlife and Outback becomes almost hospitable.
I stayed in Menindee for one night, camped on a beach next to one of the magnificent lakes. The best thing about Outback towns is the proud, worldly pub, such an important institution, and this is where I learned about the best roads to take and the best towns to visit.
I decided to do the Darling River Run, a 1000 KMS Outback road that follows the Darling River to Bourke and beyond. Outback roads have a volatile personality and can change at any time, lurching from calm to belligerent, from serene to egocentric. The road itself is an A-B type of road, and there is also no intersection with the river, only at the towns, which I found disappointing. Still, at ‘towns’ like Tilpa (one of the most isolated places I have ever been), there is a friendly Outback pub and plenty of places to camp on the river, as there are in other towns like Louth and Wilkania.
I think the thing I liked best about this trip was ‘nothing’, the vast panes of nothingness and solitude, which is unique in an epoch when it is difficult to be alone.
During April, I went on a journey that was not long in time nor distance but was monumental on the adventure scale. Some of the best journeys that I have done have been short and shattering; it is a rare feeling, fleeting, reflective, a synthesis of rival life narratives.
Broken Hill is not that far from Melbourne in terms of distance, about 1000 kms as the cockatoo flies. However, in terms of head-space distance, you might as well be riding the fucking moon! On the first day of my adventure, I felt chock-full of ennui, so I pushed my trip back a day, which wasn’t a good idea because I was compelled to ride to Broken Hill in one day.
The ride there was hellish; I was so damn tired. I stopped to nap at half a dozen towns, sprawled out in the local park in leathers trying to get a 20-minute power nap between the uptight rose gardens. At Mildura, on the Murry River, the last stop of Victorian civilisation, I filled up with petrol and coffee and crossed the state border.
After Mildura, you enter the outback and the 300 kms road to Broken Hill. Before the trip, I talked to my friend Stuart, and he advised me to ride fast (apart from the other things he recommended, this is all I remembered). The outback is like an Australian autobahn (fun fun) with Kangaroos, meaning (in theory) that you can ride as fast as you want. As it was getting dark and Broken Hill was still more than a three-hour ride away, I thought this was sound advice.
I opened the throttle and rode on the magnificent stead on my sovereign road into the dusk. After about an hour and a half, anxious of the outback at night and concerned its great void may form a friendship with my own, I plucked my eyes off the horizon and glanced down as the fuel gauge in existential horror. It was almost empty WTF!
I had forgotten (or perhaps had never known) that bikes have crap fuel economy at high speed. The fuel was nearly drunk, and there was still more than 150 Kms to Broken Hill. I thought about all those shit British backpackers that run out of petrol in the outback and decide to walk to the next town, 200 kms away, in the summer heat and get burned up about half an hour later. I did not want to spend the night sleeping in the void, cooked like a Wolf Creek backpacker in the morning.
I slowed right down, like seriously slow; I did not know I could ride so slow. Then it started to get cold, Tasmania cold, and the outback put on a vast and eternal extraterrestrial display that, for a moment, distracted me from my temporal predicament. I rode like this for an hour, then another hour, then another with the nagging fuel gauge threatening only a few kilometres more of modern life.
I arrived at Broken Hill at 1130PM, at the Palace Hotel, where Priscilla Queen of the Desert had cut a path into the jungle a generation ago. I spent a few days in Broken Hill, having a bit of a look around this wonderful outback city, micro-dosing its many delights.
Hackneyed, I know, but like all great adventures, regardless of their scope or cost, it is the journey that counts.
The Christmas period in Australia is the traditional road trip time. Straight after fat Christmas dinner, millions of Australians pack up their car, campervan, boat, and 400-litre Eskys and herd-off to a beach or river or forest somewhere to empty the Eskys and fill their bellies. This is a predictable Australian pilgrimage, worshipping the mercurial god of hedonism; thus, it is not hard to guess where they are going and go somewhere else.
Pub 1: Narrandera, Star Hotel
The first stop of my journey was Narrandera, a place that no one visits. This was a five-hour ride from Melbourne, which always ends up being eight or nine hours as I tend to stop all the time looking at nothing in particular. The ride was straightforward, not too long in the distance, and the A39 through Nagambie and Shepparton was free of Eskys. But the challenge of the day was the heat; the temperature climbed to 40 degrees, which was new territory for me. I stopped and took the lining out of my jacket, opened all the vents, and drank a litre of water. But the water didn’t seem to help as an hour later I needed another litre. This was the theme of the day, stop to drink some water.
I arrived at the Narrandera, Star Hotel early evening. The building was spectacular, as large and more critical than Old Parliament House. It had 22 rooms, but only 4 were habitable as it was in the timeless process of being converted into a lodge (I was saddened to hear that it hadn’t been licenced since 1972). I settled into my regal room connected to the colossal balcony and watched the latest episode of The Crown on Netflix
Pub 2: Coonabarabran, Imperial Hotel
I woke early the next day, well-rested in the stately room and continued my journey down the A39, Newell Highway. The day was again hot; I was almost drinking as much water per hour as my bike was petrol. I arrived at the Coonabarabran, Imperial Hotel early in the stinking-hot evening and had a couple of frenzied beers in the bar before checking in.
The hotel room was small, the tap in the pissy-sink leaked, and the huge creaked fan didn’t do what it was supposed to do. The pub had seen better days, but at a similar price to what I was paying for pub accommodation many years ago, who is complaining. I went to the local supermarket, bought some dinner, and sat under a tree.
It was here that I felt very alone and existential,
realising it was just me and my little lunch-pack and the road-narrative of the
next pub. Still, it could be worse; it could be the narrative of the same pub and
the same lunch pack day after day. I was glad to have an exit strategy.
Pub 3: Bingara Imperial Hotel
Today I rode through the magnificent Pilliga Forest and the town of Narrabri on the way to the Imperial Hotel Bingara. Bilgara is an extraordinary place, protected by B and C roads; it is a town where only curious travellers go (as opposed to the industrial-hedonists pasted to the coast).
I went straight to the bar and ordered a pint of Guinness from a young German backpacker, obviously in the know. The town is home to the Roxy Theatre and cafe, one of the most magnificent examples of art deco architecture that I have seen.
In Lismore, I camped and partied at a festival called Tropical Fruits, an LGBTIQ festival for Suzuki V-Strom 1000 riders. It was a lot of fun, I stated for five days, but I prefer the freedom of the open road.
Pub 4: Dubbo, Castlereagh Hotel
I left Lismore at 7AM, and I didn’t arrive at Dubbo until 7 PM. This was the toughest ride of the whole trip, and I am unsure why I planned such a long ride on my itinerary (and even booked the hotels in advance). I went on the B91 (Armadale Road), which traversed several national parks, including one ironically called Guy Falks National Park. This perhaps wasn’t the wisest idea given the temperature reached 40 degrees by 1130AM and this was during a state fire emergency.
Still, I checked the apps and asked other bikers on forums, and the road was okay (but I checked today as I write this, and it is closed). Today, I went along many isolated roads there the traffic was light and the towns few. The Blac Stump Way, the Premer Hotel and Barmedan were the places that I recall. These are places that I am unlikely to visit again.
The Castlereagh Hotel was a tough, working man’s hotel and the lady at the bar told-me-off for booking my room online. I ordered beer and the roast of the day (beef) and checked into my room. The room was small, but pleasant enough, complete with pissy-sink and fan.
In the evening, I heard a ruckus downstairs
and went out on the balcony and saw the local cops put some of the drinkers into
the back of a paddy wagon. A local
ritual I presume.
Pub 5: Beechworth: Tanswell Commercial Hotel
Today’s ride from Dubbo started out very hot, about 40 degrees by 10 AM. I regretted not leaving earlier, but then the temperature dropped significantly just after Parkes, which was welcome. But what was not welcome, was the bushfire smoke, so thick that visibility dropped to 150 meters. This was a spooky, reflective day of riding, I could hardly see a thing, and I was on some serious B and C roads. At a town called The Rock, visibility was down to about 100 meters, which made the journey slow and torturous.
I arrived at the last pub of my journey,
the magnificent Tanswell Commercial Hotel in Beechworth late afternoon and
settled into the front bar. Beechworth was thick with smoke and no one was about,
the only activity was at the Tanswell Hotel. There was a hillbilly band playing
and the crowd was friendly, in an almost desperate, apocalyptic way. I drank too many beers this evening, thinking
they would be the last.
I woke well-rested and rode home on the
instrumentalist Hume Freeway for three hours in the rain.
When I got back from travelling, one of my most immediate goals was to buy a new bike. But not an average bike and certainly not a 125cc. I dreamed of my future bike while riding through a sand storm on the way to Lima in Peru (the bike had slowed to walking pace, and I couldn’t see more than 100 metres ahead). At this time I imagined that my next ride was going to be the largest cc moto I could afford, something with about ten times the power of the 125cc.
So with what little money that I had when I returned, I went out and bought a BMW 1150 RT, an older model with a lot of kilometres on the clock, but still, a beautiful ride, something like driving a luxury car. I did a bunch of country rides and a long ride to Sydney with my friend David on the back, but the love affair with the BMW was to be short lived, as it turned out to be a Charleton and a one-trick pony.
In reflection, I’m am not sure what I was thinking, buying a BMW whale, it was a trophy bike for some other game. It was impossible to maintain, difficult to get between the fat traffic, and tricky to park on the footpath without maiming children. What finally ended the affair was a mere flat battery. Replacing the battery required taking the fairing and petrol tank off, a task that took me half a day, and even then, the battery cost as much as a Llama.
So after three months, the BMW was sold for a considerable loss, and I purchased a bullet proof Suzuki GS 500, the third one I have owned, the most reliable, robust, and minimalist bike around. I spent three years riding a GS 500 around London and I have owned two in Melbourne. I ride it almost every day, and it is socially flexible, unlike the BMW that was stuck in a fast lane to tears.
I have placed all the photos I took during my travels in 2015 on Flickr. They are simply categorised in order of the countries that I visited but over coming months, I will add descriptions of the places they were taken and other ‘meta-data’. If you are curious about something, please do ask and I will respond.
The transition back into Melbournian and Australian life after a long hiatus is a particularly exciting time. It is a time of renovation with renewed acumen, of putting new-found perspectives and confidences to the fore and weaving new paths through Modern life that all-too-often celebrates and rewards the regularity and predictability of well-managed lives versus the synthesis and judgment of well-lived ones. Perspectives are not given, they are earned, and genuine travel is never a diversion from a centre, but a movement towards a core.
A man travels the world over in search of what he needs and returns home to find it. George Moore, The Brook Kerith
To be invisible, paint yourself with the direct shade of zero. Leave nothing to chance, by taking nothing with you wherever you go.
Jarod Kintz, This Book is Not FOR SALE
I visited thirteen countries in twelve months and pretty much followed the loosely sketched route that I originally fashioned (but I never considered that the majority of the time would be spent on a tiny 125 cc motorcycle!) (see: my Itinerary on Google docs). Itineraries are mostly subjective, and unless you understand yourself (and your inner android), you have little chance of discovering the world around you with your own eyes. For instance, people from lots of geography, no culture sort of mindsets tend to fly vast distances in airplanes while missing all the good bits in-between. It is like picking up a book by Dostoyevsky, reading the title, taking a selfie with the book, and then claiming an insight into 19th Century Russian literature. Travel is as much about unlearning as it is about learning and it is not always about where you go, but what you take with you (or do not take with you) that counts.
A good traveler is one who does not know where he is going to, and a perfect traveler does not know where he came from
On the meta-scale, I constructed my itinerary around old paths and new, meaning that the first four months of the journey I visited seven countries that I had visited before and the last eight months I visited six new countries. I have not fully reflected upon what this meant in practice, but re-visiting a country during key junctures of your life is tremendously rewarding on a number of levels. It reminds you that not only do countries change over time, but perspectives change. Countries are largely˜imagined communities and if you do not understand your community and how it and you travel through space and time, you have little chance understanding how others do.
Wherever you go, you take yourself with you.
Neil Gaiman, The Graveyard Book
In terms of visiting a country for the first time, this is perplexing as like a child you have to wade clumsily through all the bad bits before you get to the good bits (and South America has a lot of bad bits!) Countries are inductive, not reductive, meaning that you need to go to them and move through them to discover how they embrace or resist the world (in a holistic sense, not just via lazy symbols like the Sydney Opera House or the London Eye or trophy skyscrapers in the Middle East). And whilst you are doing this, perhaps you will not only learn something about that particular country but un-learn something about your inner android in the process
I can’t think of anything that excites a greater sense of childlike wonder than to be in a country where you are ignorant of almost everything. Suddenly you are five years old again. You can’t read anything, you have only the most rudimentary sense of how things work, you can’t even reliably cross a street without endangering your life. Your whole existence becomes a series of interesting guesses. Bill Bryson, Neither Here Nor There: Travels in Europe
One year is an incredibly long time to travel, much longer than I assumed at the beginning of the journey. This is because while doing equivalent things, year-in-year-out, years may seem flavourless and similar and of the same long stretch of highway. It is like traveling across the Australian Nullarbor desert, looking out the window at a landscape that does not appear to change. A hundred kilometres looks like the past one hundred and each new day looks like the previous day.
But a year of traveling is like no other as each and every day is full of challenges, such as finding food and shelter, discovering interesting things to do, building common ground with strangers and continually improving the skills and motivations required to enter into geographical and cultural contexts bigger than oneself. Concerning un-learning, one year is just about right as one never actually un-learns until about eight months into a journey. This is the time that the imagined communities that we inhabit (with their android views of the other) are well and truly behind us, and then we can finally discover the world with fresh eyes and a clear intellect.
The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.
I learnt much about scale and distance during the past year as I did not use many airplanes which have become to travel what McDonald’s has become to food! I love walking and at a conservative estimate, I must have walked over two-thousand kilometres in the past year. This includes walking the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal, about 200 KMS, the Camino Portugual in Portugal/Spain, about 240 Kilometres, and the W Trek in Chilean Patagonia, about 80 KMS. Plus there were other, shorter one or multi-days treks in, for instance, Peru, Ecuador and Argentina and days upon days of rambling over the cracked and uneven pavements of major South American, European and Asian cities and towns.
Then there were trains, taxis, jeeps, buses and boats, but most importantly, there was an enduring Yamaha 125 cc motorcycle that hauled my ass twelve thousand kilometres for five unhurried months down the spine of the Andes from Santa Marta in Colombia to someplace near Santiago in Chile. Again, this may not seem like a long way in raw numbers, but remember this was through deserts and snow and over five thousand metre mountain passes, through the relentless winding valleys of Peru, the sweaty and sketchy Amazon, and on the isolated unsealed roads of Bolivia. I think one of the greatest takeaways I got from the journey is that the environmental world is as equally spectacular as the cultural one as it challenges, extends and motivates an individual in a similar, enduring way.
Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.
Traveling and reading go hand-in-hand and I read twenty-seven major books over the past year (download .pdf reading list). This may not seem like a lot, but books like Dostoyevskys the Brothers Karamazov took a slow reader like me eighty hours, or two weeks, to read! I am attracted to travelers that are well-read, and I think it is one of the best aspects of traveling (and indeed, it gave me something to do during long, lonely nights in dingy hotel rooms). Before I left, I asked many of my friends to suggest a favourite book to read and asked fellow travelers along the way as well. Many of the books I read had little to do with South America, such as Crime and Punishment, but then again had everything to do with a universal human condition.
Books are the plane, and the train, and the road. They are the destination and the journey. They are home.
The durability of my health was a surprise as I was lot healthier traveling for one year than I usually am during an average industrial year (few colds and flues etc.). Plus I was in some pretty toxic and unhealthy environments where it was not always easy to find the healthy eating option. If it were not for inexpensive Menu del Dia for lunch (set menu), ubiquitous in South America, I would have returned emaciated and scraggy. I put good health down to exercise, regularly washing my hands, drinking lots of water, sunscreen and hat, but perhaps more importantly, my body’s adjustment to survival and the next fresh, physical challenge (I think you call this being alive!).
We travel not to escape life, but for life not to escape us. Anonymous
Analogue guide books such as Lonely Planet are a component of the tired, stodgy and inflexible institutionalised aspect of independent travel that should either innovate or die. I have much to say about traveling as a digital humanist, about how to sensibly apply digital communication tools to enhance twenty-first-century travel. But this deserves its own article that I will write at another date.
Consequently, I took approximately two-thousand photos during the year, wrote hundreds of pages in a digital journal, blogged weekly, and read dozens of e-Books coupled with numerous audiobooks (see photos on Flickr) A small four-hundred dollar tablet helped to sustain me throughout a very long and lonely year, and I am not sure what I would have done without it. Travels with Herodotus became travels with Samsung!
Travel becomes a strategy for accumulating photographs, Susan Sontag
As a humanist, I travel at the speed of narratives, some many hundreds of years old, but many people travel at the rate of a text message or the rate of shallow reductive, hierarchical metrics (‘best little town in the world mate’), thus never leave the goldfish bowl which is the Modern airplane (and again the world has not got smaller people have got more miniature and banality is quite innovative in devising new transport and dissemination methods). Hyper Modernity (or excessive industrialisation) is just a period of history like any other and just like an episode of Delhi belly, it will pass and then a hundred flowers will blossom (well, hopefully before all the Patagonian glaciers melt or a hundred flowers will drown). And after you travel independently to fifty or more countries (and some many times), your perspective of the world changes in that cultural uniqueness and cultural interconnectedness becomes much clearer. When a young American backpacker says “Hi I’m Curtis from America” I think to myself, “How do you know?”
And thanks for sticking with me over the past twelve months while I blogged a weekly travelogue. I have never done this before, and only a few short years ago, it wouldn’t have been possible. The last couple of months have been the most lonely and challenging but also the most rewarding regarding “leaving behind and renewal” (in the great Camino de Santiago pilgrim tradition). The highs and lows tend to get much more intense the longer you travel, and this is natural because Modern life tends to over-regulate what it is to be human. And the high of seeing Mount Fitz Roy in Argentina, of walking the four hours from El Chalten, was emotional and intense but didn’t feel like closing a narrative, but opening up a whole new one.
I’ll write a couple of more reflective posts after I return to Australia on Christmas day, but I’m not trying to sell the world to you as the world largely isn’t for sale, at least, the best bits aren’t (like Mount Fitz Roy). To be a truly independent traveler one must first know what controls and influences their thinking and one don’t have to go far to reach the outer limits of an Australian education!
For instance, in Patagonia there are hundreds of glaciers yet many of thousands of people only go to the glacier Perito Moreno in Argentina simply because it is easy (but expensive) to get to and dare I say (perhaps ungenerously), is famous in emergent “global trash” narratives (it is actually only a small piece of a much larger ice sheet or the tip of the iceberg so to speak). A little bit of effort would take the independent traveler deeper into Glacier National Park to see some other glaciers or even Grey Glacier in Chile. I simply looked up some of the millions of photos of Perito Moreno on the Internet and didn’t go as my presence would possible help to make the thing melt anyhow (Australians like Americans and Germans are the world’s filthiest, dirty, polluting people unlike the Bolivians and Bengalis whose teeth may need work but whose greater impact is small).
Anyhow, thanks for sticking with me over the past few months. Blogging an old-fashioned travelogue has been technically challenging in some of the bizarro places that I have been but also rewarding in that it forced me to engage with the location more thoroughly to try and make sense of it. And I have met some fantastic people along the way who have had some fresh, interesting, and innovative ways to see the world in a century where travel is rapidly becoming dull and commonplace.