I had three days in between the rush of changing lives and so I took to some remote, steep and winding country roads on my bicycle. It began in Dead Dog, aka Dungog, once a backwater no-one would dream of visiting, but now just beginning to emulate Lazarus. I came in on the rail motor, piling off with a bunch of bored Dungog youth and hit the road as soon I could. The catch was that the road stuck to me every now and then, or rather my tyres. The first really hot day of an early summer melted the bitumen in parts, making small sucking noises as my wheels rolled over them.
Pouring sweat, struggling to find my riding legs, I hit a tough climb within a few kilometres. It wasn’t until the next day that I found my legs again, especially my mountain legs. This first day it was simply a struggle all the way to the top. Country roads may be quiet, leaving you to your thoughts and spinning spokes, but they usually cut over the tough mountain passes, have rickety one-lane bridges, and patchwork surfaces that rattle the teeth out of your head. That’s why I love them so much.
Stroud was my destination for the night, a village where you could camp for nothing beside the showground for absolutely nothing. And you could light a fire – beats TV any night, I reckon. But first I had to find some food. A small grocery shop and a pub were my choices. In the first I grabbed a large bottle of what turned out to be disgusting creaming soda and some bread. At the door of the second I met a man, stumbling up the steps from his Ute (a pickup). Tired, I guessed, time for a beer. A few minutes later he staggered out again, almost fell down the stairs and wove his way back to his vehicle, another bottle of beer under his arm. It took him a while to get the Ute started, before which he rolled half way down the hill. Finally he got going; I decided to give him a good fifteen minutes so I wouldn’t have to meet him on the road.
But Stroud also boasts an annual brick-throwing contest (I missed it), a solitary cyclist known as Tom (he came up and greeted me at 7am in the morning), and old fogeys who like walking around the showground at sunrise. I can vouch for the latter, since as I staggered out of my tent – the one I made with my father when I was 16 – the next morning in nothing but my undies, four of the local fossils greeted me enthusiastically on their morning walk and gossip.
But that second day was brilliant. I found my climbing legs for another mountain pass, stopped at the top for a fire, billy and tea, and then dropped like a stone down the other side. At the thriving Bulahdelah I watched an old man trying to teach a silly dog how to swim, bought a massive lunch from a man with a Sikh turban, and then plunged into the mosquito infested Myall Lakes National Park.
I always feel like I’m on my way when a ride evokes former journeys and triggers plans for a new one. As I rode along the lakes, fighting off swarms of mosquitoes, I recalled an earlier trip down this road; then it was rough as guts and almost destroyed the old car I was driving. And I began dreaming of a ride around Australia – 20,000 km through extensive deserts.
The spot for my second night backed onto the beach. There was no drinking water, so I carried in my own. But the ocean was the place to rinse off the sticky sweat, soak some muscles and enjoy entirely on my own and entirely naked. Fortified with tropical-strength mozzie-repellent, I cooked over a fire and watched it fade into the night.
Too soon it was the last day, but I had chosen a route that gave me an hour in an old boat – euphemistically called a ‘ferry’ – across Port Stephens (from Tea Gardens to Nelson Bay), before the run home. At the quiet Tea Gardens, young boys would run their boats as though they were bicycles. I preferred simply to sit and watch for dolphins.
But I knew I was still in the country on the last stretch to home when I was introduced to the hamlet of Salt Ash with the sign, ‘Chook Poo at round-a-bout’. Now of course I already am planning the next ride – longer of course.