Terra Australis 2019 was always going to be a tough gig for riders. Late withdrawals brought on by difficult family circumstances from the two most experienced entrants Walter Bruminich and David Waugh left just Cooma's Paul Lester a two time Tour Divide finisher and multiple Alaskan fat bike racer and two rookie hopefuls Steven MacLeod and Peter Gargano on the start line. Anyone not comfortable in their own skin would find this added layer of solitude a daunting prospect. Occasional contact and camaraderie from fellow riders along the route was not going to happen.
From the get-go Paul Lester quickly opened out a comfortable gap along the tough Old Telegraph Track [OTT] that challenges riders with multiple creek crossings and sand traps for the inexperienced rider. Onwards from Bramwell Roadhouse at 215k it's heat, dust and interminable corrugated roads south on the Peninsular Development Road to Coen. Within the opening week MacLeod and Gargano had terminated their rides. Gargano with saddle sore issues and MacLeod following an encounter with a rogue bull who took exception to his intrusion and inflicted ride ending damage to his bike.... fortunately not himself!
Departing Coen at 500k, Lester took a call from a mate familiar with the tracks where the race route was heading warning him the CapeMelville/Wakooka route would be 'three days'. He powered through in a day and a half, though he conceded it 'isn't suitable for bike riding'. He finally freed himself from the North Queensland corrugations south of Cooktown down through the CREB Track and Daintree rain forest towards Cairns.
Then west through Mareeba, Georgetown and the remote cattle stations of Bolwarra, VanLee, Gilberton and Glenmore that take a day each to traverse and on to Longreach the western most point of the Terra Australis route.
I had the chance to catchup with Paul Lester recently. He recounted a number of amazing generous experiences along his journey south in Queensland from commercial hospitality providers who realised the enormity of his journey ..... a sample encounter follows
9:30 pm Lester arrives outside a Pub door, lights on inside, just the Publican behind the bar chatting to a mate.
Lester: You open?
Publican: When you pulled up I realised I should've shut the door 5 minutes ago....
Lester: Errr... anything to eat?
Publican: Pulls a beer ... "on the house, you look like you need it."
Lester: .. expands on his Terra Australis journey south and where he's going
Publican: I'll see what I can find and disappears out the back.
More conversation, a steak, salad and another beer later....
Publican: Where you staying tonight?
Lester: I've got my sleep kit, I'll find somewhere to bivvy
Publican: A guest checked out earlier this evening, rooms not made up .. it's yours.
Publican: Another beer?
Lester: I'll fall over if I have another ... how much do I owe you?
Publican: All good mate, it's on the house. Good luck for the rest of your ride...
By the halfway point at Injune [3,132k] Lester had become unwell and shortened his daily kilometres trying to recover. Eventually he made a medical clinic in Tara and got a likely diagnosis and script for Giardia [well known amongst bikepackers] but it was three Chemists [no stock] and Byron Bay before he finally got the script filled and recovered from the energy sapping effects of the intestinal bug. Sadly two days later Lester crashed heavily just out of Coffs Harbour ending his ride after 30 days and 4,280k. Pleased to report Paul's fully recovered, planning another Alaskan fat bike race ... and there's a suspicion that the unfinished business of Terra Australia might be sitting in the background .... for the time being.
BYRON BAY-CANBERRA 1463k
Four riders including Peter Gargano [recovered from his Cape York Terra Australis attempt] headed out from the landmark lighthouse on the Eastern most point of Australia on September 22 following the Terra Australis leg south to Canberra. For the three new riders Matt Sheather, Mark Riley and Jeremy Barbe it was a first attempt at a multi day bikepacking race. Matt Sheather was clearly the stronger rider quickly opening out a handy lead in the run down the coast before swinging west across the Barrington Tops. Matt eventually abandoned at 1070k after navigation issues having lost his course notes on the first day ... later collected and put to good use by Mark Riley. Peter Gargano again withdrew realising his butt recovery was still a work in progress. Jeremy Barbe struggled on the coastal sand sections with some narrow rubber before swinging west making better time on the run across to Singleton. Sadly he had his phone and principal navigation means stolen in Singelton. Jeremy lost a day reporting the theft, eventually replacing it and recovering the necessary missing data. On a limited time frame he rode through to finish in Canberra but toured mostly off route on faster paved roads.
Mark Riley was a late starter having flown in after completing his second Paris-Brest-Paris 1200k in a very tidy 54h:11m
Congratulations Mark and kudos for backing up for an off-road adventure that was a giant leap into the unknown ...
Mark's Ride Report
Some of the things I got wrong(-), got right(+) and lucked out on.
The Byron Bay - Canberra leg of the Terra Australis Bike Epic is 1462k, 18446m; a small sample of the TABE smorgasbord.
When I registered, I did the usual reading up, looking at the route, making lots of notes (+1). What a great looking ride! I did a thorough prep because unfortunately I was flying back from Europe at 7pm the day after the ride started. So, I tried to get pre-organised.
It just didn’t work. I was not thinking clearly after the long flight and made some poor decisions. I had decided to train down to the Gold C
oast and ride to Byron (-1) and spent hours battling ridewithgps that night to plot the route from the end of the train line to Bryon. And then found out I had already loaded it on my Garmin months earlier (-2). I had tested my bike setup previously, on some trails and had 2 pinch-flats in the first hour. So, I decided my 35mm tyres needed 70 psi (-3). No punctures the whole trip, but my hands suffered. And I never wear gloves, so why start now? (-4) I had borrowed some bike bags, loaded up, and it was after midnight when I decided I was carrying too much stuff. Who needs the sleeping bag that I had especially bought for this ride? (-5) I had just done the Audax 1200k PBP sleeping in French fields in lycra and a jacket. I thought a bivy and sleeping bag liner would surely be enough, luxurious even.
I got to bed at 1am, got up at 3am to catch the train. I gathered my notes, and the ride notes that RO Steve Watson had provided, and left them all on the kitchen bench (-6) and headed off.
I arrived at the Bryon lighthouse, had a quick lunch & left at noon. The strategy was: take it easy and aim for only 200k / day which would make 7 days for the ride. Once I got the hang of it, then I could increase distance. Ha ha ha, so deluded. One hour, 2 km and 1000 steps later it became clear that I was way out of my depth. For a start I needed a lighter bike that was easier to carry (-7).
The days passed with a mix of nice sealed road, dirt road, dirt corrugations, rocky stony paths, sand; the full range of surfaces. 35mm tyres did not work well with sand. I was doing a LOT of walking. I realised that if I was going to finish, I would need a different strategy to how I usually do long rides. In a 1200k Audax ride, its over in less than 90 hours. If you start off healthy, I find you can pretty much smash yourself every day and still finish (but often falling sick after). This ride was going to be way longer I had to make a conscious effort to stay healthy (+2).
On muddy sections there were the clear prints of the 3 bikes of Matt Sheather, Jeremy Barbe and Peter Gargaro that started this BB-Canberra section 2 days before me. I felt their presence, it was somehow reassuring. Especially when I could pick up snickers bars that would magically appear on the road. I modified the 5 second rule and applied a 2 day rule for picking up food that hit the ground. I started keeping a bit of a lookout. At one stage I slowly processed the fact that the forest road I was riding on was covered in tree litter would not have had a car along for months, and that that bit of paper by the side of the road a km back, the one that did not look rained on, must have come from a rider. Should I go back? Yes, No? I went back and it was a full set of Steve Watson’s ride notes neatly folded (lucked out bigtime). There are probable only 5 or 6 copies of these notes in existence and I find a set in the middle of nowhere.
Something of a miracle I went back for this
I struggled on the sand. In Yuraygir National Park after Yamba and before Pebbly beach I walked for hours and hours.
Recent fires in Yuraygir National Park
There were 2 river crossings of note. When I arrived at Wooli Wooli River the tide was rushing upstream, so I knew it was only going to get deeper and crossed straight away. I detoured slightly downstream to the "rocky" route where I could see the depth, rather than straight across where I couldn't see the bottom, (although I have since read that you can cross here too). The river at Pebbly Beach was funny because I flabbergasted a large group of people around a camp fire when I walked out of the bush with a bike into the light asking, "where's the river?" I did both crossings in one go loaded, the current was more a worry than the depth (over hubs) and focusses your concentration. It's not dangerous, but a slip at the wrong time would have made life difficult.
Night 4 was grim, I was very cold sleeping out at Harrington. It wasn't going to get any better at 1000m in Barrington Tops so I road straight to Big W Taree to get their $25 deluxe model sleeping bag. I had lots of zip ties (+3), the most useful thing ever invented, to attach a stick across my drop bars, and attached the sleeping bag to it with boot laces. I then zip-tied my Ay-Up lights to the stick. There was enough play that I could slightly rotate the stick to adjust the elevation of the lights. I could do a quick flash at any driver who hadn't dipped their lights at night. It worked a treat (+4)!
The ride passes through some truly AMAZING country. The Barrington Tops and Wollemi National Parks sections are highlights, a taste of the isolation that must be on offer on the full TABE route. At the Barrington Tops campground, I was woken up by a Bush Turkey pecking me on the lips, had a Lyrebird run right in front of me in the afternoon and then slept in a cow paddock that night. I had been riding/walking in the pitch black across paddocks with no discernible track, except on my eTrex, opening & closing gate after gate. I flung myself down in exhaustion to send a strongly worded txt to Steve Watson ... right in the middle of a very fresh cow pat. A typical day - the full range of emotions.
With all the walking I was doing, my SPD shoes where starting to fall apart. I stopped at Singleton, but the town's only bike shop had closed down. My bike shop options were Maitland or Muswellbrook, but instead I looked for a hardware store for rubber cement and gaffer tape. Even better, I found a rubber/sealant store, I showed them the shoe, they walked down endless aisles of different formulations and gave me the exact right stuff for the job (Locktite 435). I was dubious and bought a pair of emergency thongs to use. This was dumb and would have never worked up Baal Bone Gap (-8). In any case I needn't have worried, the glue job worked perfectly, and looks like they will stay glued forever (lucked out).
The Magic Potion
The Wollemi section was a tester. I noted that Steve Halligan had ridden through in one long day the previous year. Hmm, how hard could it be? Hard. The best part of 3 days and two nights for me. That's a fair bit of food to carry and I will admit I was hungry by the time I got to Lithgow. I was coming down Nullo Mt in the dark and the track was pretty rocky, things got away from me and I went over the bars into a bush. Spectacular, but I was relatively unscathed. I was pretty shaken up, but it was close to the bottom so I walked down, found a flat spot off the track, unloaded the bike, setup to sleep, but I couldn't find my backpack with all the food. It must have come off in the crash. I walk back but it’s too dark to see anything. My only light is zip tied to my bike (-9), I go back, carry my bike back up, search everywhere, its gone. I go back down, and now I can't find my camp. I'm lost. Am I even going in the right direction? In a detached way I sit down and ask myself "am I panicking?" I don't think so, but I'm also not firing on all cylinders. Luckily there is an uphill and there is a bottom of the hill. I'm at the bottom which is where the camp must be, and I eventually find it. And look, there is the backpack that I was searching for, sitting on the ground where I left it with everything else. Eat, sleep.
I finished in 12 days, way slower than I expected. I shifted from race mode to survival mode early on day 1, I knew it was the only way I was going to finish. The other riders were much faster, but they ran out of time. I was on long service leave (the advantage of age).
I camped 7 nights, motel 4 nights. There were some cool huts that would have been great to stay in if the timing were better. Munro's Hut (737k, about 400m off track to right, look for reflector on short post ~2km after Kerripit track intersection); Sandy Camp Hut (983k, Jeremy had signed the guest book, water); Claude Agnew's Hut (1035k, Grassy Mt, water), Mt Werong Hut (1239k, water - sign said non-potable, but I dropped a tablet in and all good). There are some great lookouts: Keith's lookout (981k), Grassy Mt (1035), Hassans Wall (1129k), all close to the route and well worth stopping.
All up I did a few wrong turns, but nothing more than a few km of back tracking. I was hunted down by Peter Gargaro outside of his home-town Coffs, Anthony Duff & crew and Bundook and Tim Clark in Gloucester to say hi. Great to chat!
What a great entry into our National Capital!
Bike: The bike was an 80s Santa Lucia steel road bike, with Hunt SuperDura wheels, tektro long reach brakes to fit the 700C rims (originally the bike had 27" wheels), Schwalbe G One 1.35" (35mm) tyres, 46/33 Shimano FC-CX50 and 12-42 10sp SunRace cassette.
Power: Batteries for the eTrex30x (only needed changing once, the new Lithium Ultimate AAs are awesome), 3x Ay-Up batteries for lights and charger (could have got away with 2x), power pack for phone. The phone gave me grief with discharging with moisture, a couple of extra zip-lock bags would have been good (-10).
Spares: 3 tubes, patches, tyre boots, tyre levers, multitool, spare tyre, brake & gear cables, fibre spoke, chain links. This took up almost half of my seatbag and I never touched any of it. No bike issues at all (besides it giving my hands a pounding). The bike took a hammering too though. Weeks after the ride I gave it a thorough clean after the various salt water emersions and found that the rough roads had managed to slightly loosen the cassette locknut and one of the bottom bracket shells (!).
Other Regrets: I should have taken chain oil (-11), I ended up buying a container of sewing machine oil. I had great difficult cutting the top this, a pocket knife would have been handy (-12), a sleeping mat would have been nice (-13), a head torch would also have come in handy (-14).
Best Decision: I took a small light-weight backpack that folded up to nothing (+5). My carrying capacity was pretty small, so the backpack gave me flexibility when I wanted to carry extra water/food. I actually ended up using it a lot.
Greatest respect to those that took on the full course, I can only imagine how tough it was. What would I change if I did it again? First, I'd address all those (-) points. Live and learn. Maybe I'd still take the same bike, I could possibly fit wider tyres with some creative frame bending. This type of setup for the full course? No way! Perfect excuse for a new bike.