In early January 1996, I returned to the US from an overseas work assignment in Thailand. My plans were to get married and enjoy a honeymoon in New Zealand, until the end of January, when I had to begin my next work assignment. However, at the last minute, I found out that my next work assignment would not begin until March.
So now I had an extra month available - and since I would already be halfway around the world, the idea of an Australian tour was born. My wife still had to go back to work after the honeymoon portion of the trip, so I was planning on a solo tour.
With this last minute change of plans I only had a week (!) between my return to the US and my wedding to do *all* of the preparation for the tour. I had never before done a self-contained tour. I spent minimal time on the route selection - I pretty much looked at a map and thought, "oh, I'll just ride down the coast from Cairns to Brisbane."
I was more concerned about getting a bike ready for touring. I had never done any sort of tour before; therefore, I didn't have a bike that was already set up for touring.
So I proceeded to get my mountain bike ready for a tour. Luckily, I already had a rear rack to put on the mountain bike. But I had tried and failed to get a Blackburn lowrider front rack on the front suspension. I borrowed the drop handlebars from the stoker position of our old Peugeot tandem and put them on the mountain bike, as well as some aero brake levers and bar end shifters that I had mail ordered before I left Thailand for the US.
Since I would only be able to use the rear panniers, and I didn't have any camping gear suitable for touring, this was going to be a credit card tour. At the time, I perceived this to be an advantage, since I thought I would have an easier time finding a hotels or hostels than finding campsites.
So, with as much preparation as I could do in the week before the wedding, I gave the bike to the LBS, and let the LBS worry about packing it for the flight.
My wife and I spent our time in New Zealand travelling by campervan (RV), so I was able to (barely) fit the bike box into the ski closet.
My wife and I parted ways in Christchurch, New Zealand - she returned home to Los Angeles, and I continued on to Australia.
Australian customs asked me a lot of questions upon my arrival in Brisbane - at the time I didn't understand why. A few days later, I thought I knew the answer - there are people that come to Australia looking for work picking bananas. And, of course, how many married people travel solo with a final destination of tropical Cairns at the hottest time of the year? Later, I was informed that there are a lot of drugs smuggled from Southeast Asia to North Queensland, and my Thai visas and my final destination of Cairns probably raised a major flag with Australian customs!
At Brisbane airport I chatted with a lady who had just returned from cycletouring in New Zealand. She enjoyed cycling in New Zealand very much. When I told her my plans, I was maybe a little bit discouraged when she mentioned that she had never heard of people touring Australia by bike.
After my short flight to Cairns, the temperature was a balmy 31°C as I got off the plane in the early evening. I had decided to stay in a hotel (instead of a hostel) the first night, since that would give me more room to assemble my bike.
I wasn't sleepy yet, so I started putting the bike together. One of the wheels had a bent spoke from the packing job, and there was a crunching noise from the headset. I decided to worry about these problems the next day and went to sleep.
When I woke up, the temperature was surprisingly cool for summer in the tropics - I think I was already reacclimated to the heat and humidity from my year of living in Thailand.
I walked my bike over to the nearby LBS right when it opened at 9 AM. Next door I rented a bike for A$10 to do my errands for the day - getting maps, food, the swim trunks I forgot to bring, etc. I also booked a cruise over to nearby Green Island for tomorrow to see part of the Great Barrier Reef. This was also good opportunity to cruise around town and check things out - Cairns was a much bigger city than I expected (although still small enough to navigate by bike without too much traffic).
I got my bike back from the LBS promptly at 4:30 PM with a new spoke and a new headset. The only annoyance with the bike at this point was that there was barely enough spring tension in the rear cantilever brakes to allow the brake lever to return to neutral.
I called my wife to say hello. She said I got a message from work saying they needed some help in Thailand.
After thinking about what I would say, I called the boss in the morning from a payphone. I was already too psyched for the tour to cancel now and go back to work. Luckily, I knew he wouldn't hold it against me.
I took the Big Cat cruise over to Green Island and spent the day hanging out over at the island, snorkelling, and going on a tour with a glass bottomed boat.
I rode south on the main highway from Cairns, then went inland and climbed the Gillies Highway up to the Atherton Tablelands. A tough climb, but slightly cooler at the top and a change in scenery. I stopped for lunch at Lake Barrine. Then on to the youth hostel in Yungaburra, a small but very friendly hostel, where we had a nice Australian barbeque for dinner, and afterward all of the guests hung out downstairs and chatted until bedtime.
Then I went south to Millaa Milaaa. I enjoyed this part of the tour very much. The weather was warm, but that didn't bother me one bit after living in Thailand for a year. For some reason I had expected the riding to be fairly flat, but the rolling hills wore me out. Then it was mostly downhill on the Palmerton Highway down to Innisfail.
The hostel in Innisfail was very anti-social, in stark contrast to the previous night in Yungaburra. People would almost go out of their way to avoid conversation. And it was almost all male. Later, when someone asked me if I had found work, I found out that everyone else staying here was living here during banana picking season - hard work, but good pay.
A storm had come in, and it would rain real hard all day. But I had to ride on, since there was no way I was going to stay in Innisfail another night. This was the worst riding day of the tour. On the Bruce Highway before the turnoff to Mission Beach, I crashed on some railroad tracks that crossed the road at a 45-degree angle. Luckily, I wasn't hurt too bad - but I don't know what I would have done if I were seriously hurt.
Later in the day, I found out that the plastic coated Australian money makes a great tire boot.
What I thought was a "coastal" highway was actually inland by about 10 km. Not much pleasurable scenery - just farms and the like. I enjoyed the inland tablelands much better.
When I got to Mission Beach, I got a hotel room instead of staying in a hostel. I needed room to spread out and dry everything - all of my panniers had soaked through. My airline tickets and my passport were drenched. The only thing that stayed dry was the Australian money! :)
When it finally stopped raining, I remember thinking that my wife would really love this beach - but in July or August! Took a boat over to Dunk Island, and enjoyed a day hike with a backpacker from Germany.
With no camping gear, it would have been a race, not a tour, in order be able to ride far enough to get to the next series of towns on the way to Townsville. So I decided to take the bus to Townsville.
Stayed at Andy's Backpackers right about the bus station. Drab, but convenient.
Rode up to Castle Hill, took some pictures in the morning. I noticed that it was a *lot* drier in the southern tropics than in the north!
I reevaluated how much time I had left, the distances between the towns on the way to Brisbane, and the fact that I had no camping gear. So I decided to cut my losses by shipping the bike to Brisbane and travelling the rest of the way south as a backpacker. I found an LBS that gave me a box and free access to their tools, then I got a taxi to get me back to the hostel, then I was able to ship my bike and my panniers to Brisbane for only A$30.
Road trip for a day hike in a nearby National Park. Unfortunately, almost everyone forgot mosquito repellant, and the ranger station had none to spare. That made for a *really* short hike, since the mosquitoes got pretty bad the further into the bush. The Australian barbecue lunch afterward was excellent, and we stopped at a pub afterwards.
Even though I considered myself young at 27, I felt old compared to the other backpackers who were mostly in their early 20s. I met another "old" tourist - Lisa from the San Francisco area. She and her around the world travel companion had temporarily parted ways - her friend was in New Zealand, then they would regroup somewhere (I forget where).
Magnetic Island was a short ferry ride from Townsville. I wish I had my bike - the island would have been the perfect size for it. Instead, I rented a "Moke" (one of those little cars) to explore the island. I checked out the Koala and bird park - unfortunately, it wasn't as exciting as I had hoped. Rented a jet-ski for a while at the beach, but the waves started getting too choppy, so I gave that up real quick.
There was a hiking trail called the Two Fort Trail that passed by a couple of old World War II relics, which were pretty interesting, except for all the graffiti on them.
There wasn't much in the way of food on the island - I remember having fish and chips for lunch and chicken and chips for dinner.
I had planned to do a hike up to the top of Mount Cook, the highest point of the island at about 500 meters. The trail was clearly marked from Arcadia to Nelly Bay, but then it wasn't clear how to get from there to the summit. I think the trail may not have been open to the public past Nelly Bay, anyway.
Took it easy in the afternoon, hanging out by the pool and catching up on some reading.
Took the ferry back to Townsville. Spent some time checking out the aquarium and museum in town. Had to reload on books - I was starting to go through them pretty quick, since I realized I was running out of money to do the sightseeing activities you have to pay for.
After about a half day bus ride I arrived in Airlie Beach. The hostel I stayed at was a four minute walk from town, which turned out to good, since the other hostels were in the "party zone" in town - again, I think the average age must have been 20 or so. The couple who ran the hostel put together a barbecue and a pseudo-pool tournament.
I enjoyed an excellent sailing cruise on the Gretel, a former America's Cup entry from Australia. The skipper kept us all entertained during the cruise. We stopped on an island for lunch and some swimming to cool off.
Just hung out for the day....
Met someone else at the backpackers' inn that had a tent and wanted to meet up in Hervey Bay in a couple of days to rent trail bikes and camp on Frasier Island.
Did a tandem skydive for the first time - unfortunately, I wasn't able to get it videotaped (the other person doing his dive already had the video cameraman booked). I'm surprised I got myself to even jump out of the plane (I think I got a push from the experienced professional strapped on behind me). It was an amazing experience and a great view on the way down - I'd recommend trying it at least once in a lifetime.
Took it easy that afternoon, then caught the 7 pm bus, which arrived in Hervey Bay at 8 am. I slept fairly well, considering that the bus stopped at 10 pm in Mackay and at 2 am in Rockhampton.
I checked into Koala Backpackers', then went walking around town for most of the day to check things out. I quickly discovered that the only reason Hervey Bay was on the "backpackers circuit" was because it was a jumping off point to Fraser Island.
All of the hostels organized three day self-guided 4WD group tours of the island. I put my name on the list to be assigned to a group, and was a little concerned when I saw groups of foreign speaking tourists signing up, fearing that I'd be assigned as an odd man into a group of people that already knew each other.
My fears were unfounded, as I got assigned to a group made of four solo travelers and two couples. The group was:
|Jeff - US - San Francisco Bay area|
|Carrie - England|
|Kristine - Germany|
|Mark - Scotland|
|Janet - Ireland|
|Martina - Ireland|
|Conner - Sydney, Australia|
Jeff was the most talkative of the bunch, and had previous experience with 4WD vehicles, so he was especially excited and looking forward to the whole experience, including the driving on the island.
We went for a grocery run in the 4WD Toyota Land Cruiser. Since I was the one who "signed away my life" for the group by giving my drivers' license information, I ended up being the one driving us all to the local supermarket. It was a good chance to get used to the vehicle - I had already had enough experience driving on the left side of the road the previous year, so that aspect of the driving wasn't a problem.
Upon our return to the hostel the other groups teased us, since we had bought the most food.
I never did run into that guy I met in Airlie Beach who was going to Fraser Island...
That morning we drove over to the ferry, which took us over to the island. Fraser Island is the world's largest all-sand island. Needless to say, 4WD vehicles are essential for getting around on the island.
Jeff took the first honors for the driving for a while. Then Jeff gave up the driver's seat and I gave it a go. Driving in the sand was a weird experience - to a certain degree I had to let the vehicle go where it wanted to go, yet on occasion I had to take firm control of the wheel to force it on course. And also, never stop when in deep sand - it's easier when it's always moving! I pretty much got the hang of it, with Jeff offering some occasional advanced pointers that helped out quite a bit.
Carrie then decided to give a go at driving. We were going along OK for a while, then we hit a rut in the sand, which caused the steering wheel to get yanked from Carrie's hands, and we started rolling sideways off the road and down a hill. Luckily, a tree stopped us from rolling when the Land Cruiser was at a 45-degree angle. If the tree weren’t there, we would have rolled sideways down the hill. No one was hurt, but we wasted a lot of time waiting for a tow truck. We had a dent on the left side of the 4WD, but nothing that would stop us from driving safely.
After we got going again, we finally made it to the beach on the other side of the island. With the low tide, we could go into 2WD mode on the smooth sand. Our goal was to make it to Indian Head, but we only had an 11-4 window allowed to driving on the beach, and beach camping was prohibited. I was getting a little nervous that we wouldn't make it past the beach area by 4 PM, but Jeff assured us that we would, and he was right.
We didn't make it to Indian Head, but we found another campground on the way, so we stopped there. We set up camp fairly late, although we managed to get the tents up before dark. We then cooked dinner and got a chance to socialize as a group in the process - we were all quite different people with different backgrounds, but we got along quite well as a group.
We broke camp then went back to the main road and continued on to Indian Head - it turns out that Indian Head was less then 100 meters away on the main road!
Jeff and I did most of the driving today again. So throughout the day I alternated from being in the best seat (the front) to the worst seat (the sideways facing bench in back), where I would get the bumps that would almost hit my head.
Kristine tried driving for a bit also. She did fine, once getting over the natural tendency to slow down when starting to get bogged down in the sand.
We did a self-guided tour through an old shipwreck - it was pretty neat. After barely getting to a campground the previous night, we decided to get an early start to Lake MacKenzie in order to arrive early enough to secure a campsite.
We arrived at around 4 PM, which we thought was early enough, but all of the drive-in campsites were taken, as this was the most popular destination on the island. We found a site at the hike-in area, and schlepped our stuff over from where we parked in order to claim our turf.
Lake MacKenzie is a very beautiful, with the most crystal-clear water I had ever seen. We all took a dip in the water, and then returned to camp for a late dinner.
We had a hectic early morning. We found out that we were not supposed to be in the hiker campsite - the ranger told us to vacate the site by 8:30 AM, or face a $500 fine. So much for sleeping in that morning...
We had a lazy day at Lake MacKenzie. We finished off our remaining food for lunch ... some of the other groups were a little low on food by the end of the trip, although not dangerously low by any means.
We didn't have enough time for any more exploring on the island, so we decided to take the earlier ferry back to Hervey Bay. (Plus we thought taking the earlier ferry back might score us some bonus points with the Jeep owners.) It turns out that the manager for the Jeep rental service was also on the ferry. Jeff handled the situation quite well - admitting what we did to the jeep and yet not trying to BS our way out of things. (At this point, we had also surmised that the tow truck people had already been in contact with the manager ... it was certainly a small world on the island.)
After getting off the ferry, we drove the jeep over to the repair place. Barry at the repair place and offered all the guys beers, while assessing the damage to the jeep. While waiting, we got the chance to check out some of the other jeeps they were working on. I noticed one that used to have the steering wheel on the left, which was moved over to the right - I told Jeff, and he used this as more ammunition for further schmoozing.
Barry appreciated our honesty about what happened to the jeep and charged us only $600 for the damage - all eight of us lost our $60 bond, plus Carrie had to come up with an extra $100. I wonder how much it would have cost us without Jeff's help...
That night we had drinks in Hervey Bay and exchanged addresses...
A Wednesday morning bus ride from Hervey Bay brought me in to Brisbane. My bike was waiting for me at the bus depot - I had it shipped in a box from Townsville. It arrived OK in one piece. Not wanting to unpack it and then have to repack it again for the flight to LA, I left the bike in the box and caught a ride to the hostel (I forget whether it was by taxi or bus).
The hostel wasn't too far from downtown, so I walked into town that afternoon. Although Brisbane is a typical "suburban sprawl" city (like LA, but not as big), there's a small downtown area with shops and restaurants that was worth checking out.
Thursday morning I decided to put the bike back together. I found a bike trail along the river - a typical urban trail with the typical confusing road crossings at times. I was hoping it would lead me out of the city and into the countryside, but that didn't happen.
Friday I rode up to the top of nearby Mt. Coottha. I'm not sure it's technically high enough to be called a mountain, but it's certainly too big to be considered a big hill. Although the top is cluttered with radio and TV antennas, the views were certainly nice.
Saturday I took a bus down to the Gold Coast (about an hour and a half ride) for the day. This is the nearby beach area - I was forewarned that the area was very commercialized, but I had to experience it for myself.
On the way to the Gold Coast, the bus stopped at some of the theme parks that were Australia’s answer to the California and Florida parks. The summer weather in Brisbane had the temperatures of Los Angeles, but the humidity of Florida. (From looking at tables with winter temperatures, I presume the winter climate is also similar to that of Southern California or Florida.)
I got off the bus at Surfers Paradise. I was expecting a mostly surfing atmosphere, with maybe a couple of high rise apartment complexes. I had no idea how commercial it would be. It was high rise after high rise - much more developed than the California coast - even more so than Florida - and there were also numerous souvenir shops catering to Japanese tourists. I saw only a few surfers, but the other tourists outnumbered them.
On the bus ride back I had recalled that I when I used the payphone at the hostel the night before, I had left the (pre-paid) telephone card inside the telephone. I had a nasty habit of (almost) doing that on the whole trip, but I would always catch myself before getting too far away from the phone. This time it was a $50 phone card with only one or two calls used on it. When I returned from the day trip, I asked the front desk of the hostel if anyone turned in the card, and unfortunately no one had done so.
For my return flight to LA, I didn't know about the availability of bike boxes at the airport in Brisbane, and since I already had a box in my hostel room, I packed the bike in it and got a taxi to take me and the bike to the airport.
All and all, an enjoyable trip – but this certainly isn’t the last of the bike touring days…
There was also no time for any preplanning for the tour route. I just looked at a map and
tried to find a straightforward route - so the idea of riding down the east coast of
Australia from Cairns to Brisbane was born. (Later I found out that an
inland route is better - see my Australia links page for
Also, I made a lot of first time mistakes - I overestimated my average daily mileage, went during the rainiest month of the year, didn't have camping gear where towns were sometimes more than 100 km apart, learned that Jandd panniers weren't completely waterproof, etc.
But, believe it or not, I still enjoyed the tour!