Here’s my personal best of “Seven Alpine Mainland Winter Summits” of Australia. The list is made up of the most enticing peaks for lovers of interesting winter mountain ascents. While including the highest mountains in mainland Australia a few are not in the seven highest. All have their own challenges that may include ice and snow, remoteness, changeable and extreme weather conditions. None should be underestimated, especially in winter. The idea of these “seven summits” is to focus attention on the local landscape in a way that captures the imagination and stimulates the thirst for adventure. So far in four attempts I have been successful on three of the peaks and have turned back on two.
Mount Kosciuszko 2,228m
Mount Townsend 2,209m
Mount Twynam 2,196m
Mount Jagungal 2,061m
Mount Bogong 1,986m
Mount Feathertop 1,922m
Mount Bimberi 1,912m
Mount Townsend is off the beaten track. Further out than Kosciuszko and away from the standard Main Range crossing route it is generally more than a day trip in winter unless snow conditions and the weather is perfect. From the Eagles Nest café at the top of the main Thredbo chair lift we cross country skied up along the route of the Kosciuszko Walk. Occasional sections of the metal boardwalk were visible poking through the good snow cover. Apart from an icy breeze the weather was clear. The view from Kosciuszko Lookout at the 2km mark showed the next part of the route. Fresh powder snow made the uphills easy with our patterned ski bases gripping nicely, and the gentle downhills a dream. Sections from Etheridge Gap to Rawsons Pass were icy.
With summit fever for Mt. Townsend we bypassed Kosciuszko and traversed across its northern ridge line to Muellers Pass. The windswept ridge to the top of Muellers Peak was alternating ice and powder. I strapped my skis onto my backpack and just walked up. On the hard ice of the Main Range sometimes it’s easier to walk if you don’t have climbing skins for your skis or snowshoes. From the top of Mueller a stunning vista opened out to the north – frozen Lake Albina, Little Austria and Lady Nothcote Canyon backdropped by the spectacular Sentinel and Watsons Crags with Mount Jagungal lying distant and aloof. The traverse of Mueller felt almost like a mini mountaineering exploit with a narrow rocky ridge perched high above plummeting slopes on both sides.
We left our packs in the bowl below Townsend’s peak and skied easily up to a flat part of its eastern ridge. From here we kicked steps up the final steeps to the summit. Alone. We stood on the very edge of the Snowy Mountains. Massive wedding cake hills made up the Main Range with only Kosciuszko a little higher. Snow gave way to green forest thousands of feet below and to the west in the Geehi Valley which merged into blue range upon range down into Victoria. Dazzling light. Huge sky. Pristine white. Hardly a sign of civilisation in the enormous landscape. It was difficult to tear ourselves away. Then we thrilled in the perfect, consistent snow and telemarked back down to our packs and lunch.
On the western side of Muellers Peak and Kosciuszko is a large, gently undulating shelf that hangs high above the valleys. This is a relatively seldom visited area of delightful ski touring in good weather.
In the mid-afternoon we rounded the southern ridge of Kosciuszko into the headwaters of Swampy Plain River which flows out of Lake Cootapatamba.
From a peak nearby we watched the sun set behind an approaching bank of dark clouds. Cootapatamba Hut, a small survival hut, made for a comfy overnight.
In the middle of the night it was a better option than our snow tent as a blizzard hit.
About 10cm of snow had fallen by morning. The forecast improvement in conditions did not eventuate so we set off into the storm in limited visibility, blowing cold wind and snow showers. On a compass bearing and with snatches of clearing we climbed steeply up to North Ramshead, then down to Kosciuszko Lookout and back to the top of Thredbo.
As we descended the downhill ski runs the weather improved and the sun even came out. In 1 ½ days we had experienced all the weather of the Snowys in winter – blistering sunshine to blizzard, and the full range of snow conditions from sheet ice to brilliant dry powder.
Postscript; Several years prior I had encountered an international party of mountaineers who set off, against local advice, into a blizzard to climb Kosciuszko which was their last of the “real” Seven Summits of the world (the highest mountain on each of the seven continents). They did not make it and had had to be rescued by police and NPWS staff who put their own lives at risk. With a tight time schedule they had been turned back and flown out having failed on Kossie after summiting Everest, Denali etc.
Strzelecki Desert, Flinders Ranges, Kati Thanda/Lake Eyre, Oodnadatta Track, Painted Desert, Uluru, Kings Canyon, Mount Sonder, Alice Springs.
5,700 km DR650 (2) KLR 650 20 days Self-supported
Some of the best adventure motorcycle touring in Australia
“The sky was big and empty
My chest filled to explode
I yelled my insides out at the sun
At the wide open road
It’s a wide open road
It’s a wide open road”
“Wide Open Road” The Triffids
Big sky country. Goats, Emus, a pig. Small hills and dips. 90kph – an easy slow pace while we settled in and got the feel of the heavy machines loaded with too much fuel and water and stuff. In a blur we passed a white and rainbowed piano on a rise overlooking the stretched flatness of wide open plains. For the next half hour images of Coldplay occupied my mind. The rattle I thought had been sorted back home returned.
Broken Hill to Packsaddle 225km – Day 1
Mixed dirt and bitumen to Tibooburra. Flat gibber desert. Then the granites. Supermarket, internet, last phone calls. Into Sturt National Park, the Jump Up Loop was sensational – like a wildlife park. The first soft soil on the journey had us fishtailing into small furrows. Paul parked his souped bike, like a black stallion, at a lookout over lunch. We followed the Middle Road through the guts of the park. In the western section the track crossed dune country. We learned fast how to keep momentum up, stand up and let the bikes find their way. At the top of each dune I watched out for Chris’s headlight, relieved each time that he was still upright. My own lead-up to this adventure bike trip of a lifetime had been percolating for 35 years, Chris’s for 4 months. He had bought a postie bike, became hooked and jumped into this trip, purchased a bike, learned to ride, sorted camping gear, all with a determined single-mindedness of purpose and deep desire. Here he was living his favourite song of all time.
Several groups of huge wedge tailed eagles tore at roadkill and lifted without hurry as we neared.
In the centre of a black hole where a gravitational singularity exists time and space bend and shift. Occasionally time seems to intensify and become focussed with events and action, emotions and thoughts cascade and crystalise. Riding the low dunes on the narrow winding track into the fading light of the desert I concentrated, hypervigilant, used every sense and skill – in the flow.
“I want to fly like an eagle, to the sea
Fly like an eagle
Let my spirit carry me
I want to fly (oh, yeah)
Fly right into the future
“Fly like and Eagle” – Steve Miller Band
330 km. 8.15am – 5.15 pm. Packsaddle to Cameron Corner – Day 2
Up early. I spent an hour and a half checking everything, tightened every nut, adjusted and lubed the chain. Found the Safari tank stabiliser bar a little loose so fixed that.
Deep into the Strzelecki Desert the parallel dunes lay across the track. Sandy rise, crest, slightly firmer descent, relax across the long flat swale, switch on and focus for the next rise. 60km in we rested. Chris (KLR 650) noticed some green fluid on his left boot. Then on the fairing. Then pooling on the sand. Ugh! *#?! Hot. Jackets off. Nothing was going to happen fast now. Tarp. Tools. Thermos. Snack. Fairing off, radiator guard off. Fluid dribbled down.
3 other bikers stopped going the other way. One had hit a sheep on their first day out of Adelaide on the way up. They had done two tyres on the Birdsville Track and another’s rear suspension had failed completely (he was still riding it). They carried a spare rear tyre. We had prepared well. Good bikes, recently fully serviced, good tyres, heavy duty tubes, lots of spares and tools. As they roared off I contemplated whether their speed had been a contributing factor.
Metal putty was kneaded firmly into the parts of the radiator we thought were the possible sources of the leak. (In retrospect we should have drained then removed the whole thing and inspected it more carefully). Satellite phone call to my mechanic at home for any more tips. We also called Kim, who had dropped out of the trip days prior to departure due to health commitments, and he searched out repairers. Chris topped up the coolant with water. We considered pushing on but then took the safer option of turning round back towards civilisation rather than getting extended into the remoteness. Back at Cameron Corner Chris made arrangements with a repairer in Broken Hill. We then pushed on towards Tibooburra in the late afternoon. Back across dunes and sandy sections. In the gloaming, the time when the sunset glow turns into evening gloom, we rode through gibber country. This was the second day we had ridden in low light animal roadkill conditions. I didn’t like it. Nerve wracking Russian Roulette. I accepted the self-proclaimed title of “old man” and just slowed right down. Once I had accepted what we were doing it felt like being a rider in the Dakar race pushing on into the darkness. Alone in the massive space. Songs drifted into my head and stuck there like earworms, giving rhythm and a soundtrack to the flow.
”Look at the sun
Falling from the sky
And the sunset\Takes my mind
Back to my homeland
It’s a story
Planted in my mind
It’s so clear
Oh my sunset dreaming
“Sunset Dreaming” – Yothu Yindi
Cameron Corner into the Strzelecki then back to Tibooburra 290km – Day 3
On the delightful cruise back down to Broken Hill the KLR ran well with a constant temperature and a few refills. Rob, of Rob’s Dirtbike Repairs, attempted a repair over the metal putty which didn’t pass a pressure test. It seemed like we’d stumbled into a real motor biker’s fraternity of country goodwill. He phoned a client and asked if he would donate his KLR radiator to Chris if he was later given a new one fully installed. 10 minutes later the bike was dropped off and the radiator installed.
“Oh I get by with a little help from my friends
Mm gonna try with a little help from my friends”
“With a Little Help” – Lennon and McCartney
Tibooburra to Broken Hill 335km – Day 4
The retreat back to our stored car and trailer enabled us to drop off some of the stuff we had decided was unnecessary – my down jacket, Chris various items. Having lost a few days the full planned circuit ride was cut down a little. At the border on the Barrier highway three fellers on 2 KLRs and a DR who had been on the Oodnadatta Track stopped like comrades for a yarn. Springsteen, like an anthem from my youth, drove me along the blacktop into South Australia. Further down we bumped into a ducati drag racer who had driven his van all the way from WA to do a 10 second race in QLD before returning back across the country (YEEHAH was his number plate).
“In the day we sweat it out on the streets of a runaway American dream
At night we ride through the mansions of glory in suicide machines
Sprung from cages out on highway nine,
Chrome wheeled, fuel injected, and steppin’ out over the line
H-Oh, Baby this town rips the bones from your back
It’s a death trap, it’s a suicide rap
We gotta get out while we’re young
`Cause tramps like us, baby we were born to run”
“Born to Run” – Bruce Springsteen
Broken Hill to Peterborough 280km – Day 5
We rode up through small country towns towards the Flinders Ranges, Orroroo, Carieton, Hawker. Song verses went round and round inside my head as the miles got eaten up. In two places old timers sauntered over for a chat, wistful and envious of our adventure, sharing some of their own past riding stories. The bikes seemed to act like a magnet for people to approach. Saltbush studded low foothills. Soldier settler homestead ruins stood forlornly at regular intervals on the dry earth.
“Round and round up and down
Through the streets of your town
Everyday I make my way
Through the streets of your town”
“Streets of your Town” – The Go Betweens
Strong sunlight reddened the high crags of Moonarie as we rode beside the Ranges and up to our camp at Wilpena Pound.
Peterborough to Wilpena Pound 200km – Day 6
The steeds remained behind while we hiked up St Mary Peak. All around the view was stupendous and the light beautiful as we ascended. Sinuous, shadowed valleys curled north into the Northern Flinders and Gammon Ranges. To the north-west lay the brown, arid, flat vastness of the dry Lake Torrens and beyond to the region we were heading for. I caught snatches of Chris and Paul talking deep philosophy. I mulled slowly over things beyond the concrete that I had experienced. From the summit the Pound was ringed by cliffs. Grass trees. Enormous space. I felt an unfolding sense of connection – adventuring into magnificent, wild places, being in touch with the spirit of the landscape. A childhood spent exploring the bush had laid down a network of neural pathways enabling me to find comfort, excitement and attachment in places of remote solitude. And a working life of regular periods of hyperawareness in natural places – being closely attuned to changing conditions, terrain, direction, the weather, has led to an intuitive knowledge and fluency. Core parts of my psyche are centred in the earth, wild places, adventure and the cosmos.
Above and afar
Like answers to questions
And the longing to survive”
“Visionary Mountains” – Joan Armatrading
Late in the day I worked on my bike. Methodically. I put a rubber spacer between the tank and the frame to lift it a little. To try to remove the rattle.
Overnight we reprioritised our plans for the trip – Lake Eyre, The Painted Desert, Uluru. To make up some time we departed camp as the sun rose. It seemed we had settled into a pattern of arriving late and packing up next morning in the dark. Sunlight hours were short. The back road along the Razorback was sensational riding – a narrow twisting spine backdropped by high ranges. Along the creekbed track through Brachina Gorge we travelled thru sediments and bands of rock from an array of geological time periods. Ridges and cliffs towered above. Eagles soared the thermals. Red gummed stream, pools in shining smooth water worn rock. Tricky track – stony and gravel. Weaving, winding. I gaped upwards in quick snippets through the chasm. Every bend was sided by stone hundreds of millions of years older or younger than the last. Our lifetimes are so fleeting. Concentration.
“Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day
Fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way.
Kicking around on a piece of ground in your home town
Waiting for someone or something to show you the way.
Tired of lying in the sunshine staying home to watch the rain.
You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today.
And then one day you find ten years have got behind you.
No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun.”
“Time” – Pink Floyd
Leigh Creek, Lyndhurst, Farina, Maree. Fast smooth dirt – endless horizon. I followed the distant dust trails of the other two bikes. Paul’s bike seemed hard to slow down, airbox opened, carbie jets changed, high performance exhaust system – hard mouthed and headstrong with its big black tank full of 98 octane fuel. The view over Lake Eyre South was dramatic. Again we rode on into the sunset after a stop at some springs. Stuart had linked these springs along this same route (later the Ghan, telegraph, and Oodnadatta Track) as he white-man explored into the interior more than a century prior. And for millennia Aboriginal people had followed their songlines that linked these water sources through the desert country. We dinnered under a huge canopy of stars. In the winter sky the “emu” lay clearly in the dark parts of the Milky Way. I thought about all the Aboriginal elders who had passed and were up there sitting by their fires along the river of stars. And my own Mum and Dad, up there somewhere too, maybe waiting by a fire, watching.
The day of adventure riding had been an absolute cracker. It had been long anticipated. Through early years of riding an old smoky Suzuki Hustler 250, a CT 90 in Africa and then a series of trail bikes and others for commuting. Through BMW dreaming I had finally settled on the DR as a simple, lightweight, reliable machine, uncomplicated. Years of poring over maps. Practice rides and camps with Kim. Rolling back decades to exploring the bush fire trails on my bicycle as a kid.
Wilpena Pound to Coward Springs 360km – Day 8
We motored north–west on the Oodnadatta Track, past derelict railway sidings and stations of the Old Ghan Line. More dune country led us in to William Creek. On a flight over Kati Thanda/Lake Eyre Chris and Paul were gobsmacked by the “incredible natural designs in the salt visible from above” and “the vastness of it all that you could not see the end of”. Squiggly sand surfaced much of the Halligan Bay Track. Remote! Not a place for a breakdown or fall. I felt nervous and daunted. Slowed down another notch. Black hills near the lake had a Mordor appearance – desolate with nothing growing at all. A white horizon beckoned us further. The last section alongside the salt was exhilarating – smooth, fast, flat.
We walked out onto the flat, endless, white salt. Stark. Hostile. Textured. I planted my feet firmly on one of our country’s psychic/cultural/mythical centres. Sunset lit up the western sky with golden fire and the east coloured with mauve that pinked then purpled. The breeze dropped with the dusk.
Dry, empty. Quiet. Still. Waiting for a flood.
Under the stars, beside the brooding white, I wondered at the angle of the disk of stars that make up our galaxy, at the centre point and our orientation to them both.
“Stars, they come and go
They come fast or slow
They go like the last light of the sun, all in a blaze
And all you see is glory”
“Stars” – Janis Ian
Coward Springs – William Creek – Halligan Bay Kati Thanda/Lake Eyre 170km – Day 9
Venus and the moon predawned the sunrise. Grass tussocks caught early light. We returned through the mini black hills and excitedly over the sandy parts. I felt relief on regaining the main track. The ride north up the Oodnadatta Track was exhilarating – fast and smooth sections alternated with dunes and corrugations – all through magnificent landscape. Gibber, saltbush, dunes and swales. Historic Albeckunga Bridge and then coffee at the famous Pink Roadhouse.
Into the sunset yet again we rode. This time through the psychedelic hills of the Painted Desert. Colours in the earth were burnt orange and red by the fading light. Away from the glow the sky purpled.
“Purple haze all in my eyes
Don’t know if it’s day or night
You got me blowin’, blowin’ my mind
Is it tomorrow, or just the end of time?”
“Purple Haze” – Jimi Hendrix
We glimpsed homestead hospitality at Archaringa. Camp kitchen and showers.
Halligan Bay to Archaringa 350km – Day 10
A morning of bad karma started by being woken by a loud fart from the tent next door which was answered immediately by a yelp from a passing cattle dog. We had been eating a lot of beans and rice. I lost it over breakfast with the others over something minor. Then my rear tyre was flat. I had practiced for this. Had the spare tubes and tools. Had watched the youtube videos and done both tyres at home. We used a large stone as part of the stand. The wheel came off ok and eventually we managed to break the bead on the tyre. The old tube came out easily but inserting the new tube and the valve stem through the rim under the tyre proved problematic. Eventually we got it in, lubed the edge of the tyre and reset it successfully. On pumping it up I felt proud that we could fix all this ourselves – even though it was pretty much a minimum skill level for such remote travel.
Back out onto a less used track we negotiated gravel creek beds and large bull dust holes. Then like some grand American western the black stallion led us across wonderful hill country where the dusty yellow brick road changed through red to brown then back to yellow and grey and rust.
Pirsig had summed up the pleasures of riding through the landscape years before…………
“In a car you’re always in a compartment, and because you’re used to it you don’t realize that through that car window everything you see is just more TV. You’re a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame.
On a cycle the frame is gone. You’re completely in contact with it all. You’re in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming.” Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values
……………..on the dirt, in the desert, miles from anywhere this is even more pronounced. To be just riding for days and weeks into the landscape was bliss.
I dropped my bike while stopping to take a photo. The other two cowboys helped lift it back up. Eventually we joined the Stuart Highway and left the dirt behind for a few days.
On the way north I started anticipating Uluru. At a roadside stop I plugged in the speaker and cranked the music.
”Standing on solid rock
Standing on sacred ground
Living o-on borrowed ti-i-i-ime
And the winds of change are blowin’ down the line
Right down the line”
“Solid Rock” – Goanna
At Kulgera we watched the State of Origin in the roadhouse pub. A few keen guys took over the closest seats to the telly and a large group of Aboriginal people chatted by a fire in a tin outside. When the game started they all trooped inside and watched and drank and socialised happily and at ease. Everyone was friendly – Queensland winning probably helped.
Arckaringa to Kulgera 350km – Day 11
On the way to Yulara we chattered with other biking groups, tourers mainly.
From an isolated lookout near Kata Juta we were immersed in the changing afternoon light between that range of rounded rocky massifs and the Rock itself. Uluru seemed to float on the horizon above the goldening spinifex. Powerful. Mesmerising. Captivating. Like a massive ship landed from outer space. Coloured layers filled the sky. “Pictures can’t capture the sublimity of it,” Paul.
Desert oaks, honey grevillea, everlasting daisies. Meditative music washed through my head and my heart overflowed in the almighty grandeur of the scene.
In the dark we rode back to our “unpowered lawn” campsite.
Kulgera to Uluru 330km – Day 12
A quiet throng surrounded us at the sunrise viewing before we walked round the path at the base of the Rock. Caves, overhangs, art sites, canyons, and some sacred places where photos and access were not allowed. Cool damp glades, flowers of all colours, hot red dirt.
And above towered the enormous red cliff faces with giant holes and featured formations like huge mouths and waves.
At the Mutitjulu Waterhole the stone seemed alive, radiating its own light through the open forest above the still pond.
In the afternoon we worked on our bikes. Checked and lubed the chains, tightened all the bolts, cleaned the air filters. Two number plates had gone missing.
At sunset we entered once again into the presence of the Uluru as it glowed through changing hues. The other cultural and symbolic heart of the country.
”Black fella, white fella
It doesn’t matter, what your colour
As long as you, a true fella
As long as you, a real fella
All the people, of different races
With different lives, in different places
It doesn’t matter, what your name is
We got to have, lots of changes
We need more brothers, if we’re to make it
We need more sisters, if we’re to save it”
“Blackfella Whitefella” – Warumpi Band
Uluru – Day 13
Blacktop to Kings Canyon/Watarrka National Park. Camp on soft grass. Around some of the rim walk we followed a small group of indigenous people who were first time visitors on an outing from a community nearby. Their musical language and happy laughter filled the gullies and added a merry atmosphere to the magical landscape. Red stone domes. Sheer, colour streaked cliffs. Spinifex tussock textured hills and ridges. Cycads. At a billabong I looked deep into the cold black water and wondered at the stories the place could tell of Aboriginal people and their dispossession from places like this.
The final dirt riding for Chris and I (Paul continued round through QLD later). The Mereenie Loop. Famed as a vehicle breaker. It had been recently graded so corrugations were bearable. Soft sand was our main challenge. Lots of snaking lines. Lots of time standing up. Momentum and confidence. Chris stepped off his bike in the deepest sand after being overtaken by a car only 5 km from the bitumin. A GS 1200 rider reinforced my opinion that they were too big and heavy in the sand. Then at a lookout we met the local Ulysses Club out on a Sunday ride. We camped in the West Macdonnell Ranges on a hill overlooking the entrance to Redbank Gorge.
“Looking out at the road rushing under my wheels
I don’t know how to tell you all just how crazy this life feels
I look around for the friends that I used to turn to, to pull me through
Looking into their eyes I see them running too
Running on, running on empty
Running on, running blind
Running on, running into the sun”
“Running on Empty” – Jackson Browne
Kings Canyon to Redbank Gorge 210km – Day 15
By sunrise we’d hiked up onto the ridge of Mount Sonder into a scene full of drama. Dark clouds, streams of searing first light, rainbows on distant ranges. Like being inside a von Guerard painting. At the summit a blasting cold wind cut short our viewing time of the range upon range of mountains stretching east west. Mt Zeil and Haast Bluff beckoned and planted seeds for a next trip. We hiked back down into balmy still warmth. A final dirt photo then a long ride flanked on both sides by lines of rocky hills. Gorges regularly split the West Macdonnell Range on the left. Civilisation hit with a bang. We got one of the last sites in the campground, thankfully slightly removed from the many camping school tour groups.
“It’s a beautiful day
Don’t let it get away
It’s a beautiful day”
“Beautiful Day” – U2
Redbank Gorge to Alice Springs 190km – Day 16
A day in Alice. Two bikes went to the biggest bike shop for new tyres which it turned out hadn’t been ordered (Chris and I had to make it back to Broken Hill on fairly worn knobbies) and two got serviced. Coffee shops. Read the paper. Emails and the digital world. Then a wander through the Aboriginal art galleries – colours and styles of the desert country we had journeyed through, beautiful, restful, a massage for the psyche, hybrid ancient and modern, art interpreting story and landscape. Lots of indigenous people were hanging around the town, some lost and aimless – I guessed that these were the visible folk and the others were probably busy working around town in hospitals, schools, offices or at home. We sorted things for our trips back – Chris and I on the highways back to Broken Hill and Paul pushing on through Queensland on the Plenty Highway and Birdsville Track back past Innaminka. Dinner in Bojangles.
“Out where the river broke
The blood wood and the desert oak
Holden wrecks and boiling diesels
Steam in forty five degrees
The time has come
To say fair’s fair
To pay the rent
To pay our share
The time has come
A fact’s a fact
It belongs to them
Let’s give it back
How can we dance when our earth is turning?
How do we sleep while our beds are burning?
How can we dance when our earth is turning?
How do we sleep while our beds are burning?”
“Beds are Burning” – Midnight Oil
Alice Springs 0km – Day 17
Paul, who had an extra week, headed north and then east towards Boulia while Chris and I did the blacktop, bitumen, followed the white lines. Great country but cold in the morning. Watched the miles tick over. Cold crept through invisible cracks in the clothing. Three days paying for the fabulous dirt tracks. We stopped every 50km for a break, rest from the buffeting. Sit on 95kph. My rattle still came and went. More songlines drifted through my head, some stuck fast. I planned future trips. Calculated endlessly the time left in the day, the kilometres, the roadhouses. Road trains. Caravans headed mostly north. The odd biker waved.
We stopped for fuel at Marla. While we coffeed a very young couple mooched around a little nearby. A skinny aboriginal girl and a white guy with a large tattoo. She kicked a back tyre of the white stationwagon and said to me that it looked ok and should last, wrapped a thin blanket over her tshirt and hopped in the passenger seat. He drove out. Chris and I pushed on to the Cadney Park Roadhouse and set up our tents sheltered from the biting wind behind the big camp kitchen. The stationwagon pulled in a little later then after it left the roadhouse owner and a staff person stood outside watching it depart for a while. I wondered at what had gone down. 15 minutes later it returned with one dead flat tyre being destroyed on the rim as it drove in. They came over to the camp kitchen and had a short chat – not much money, unsure what to do, did we know where there might be some old tyres? They had come down from Darwin. They were cold. I asked if they had any bedding. They wandered off. A little while later the guy came back and said he’d lost his licence and asked if I could buy him a six pack. I said I didn’t buy booze but offered to pay for them to stay in one of the dongas (cheap roadhouse rooms). They reminded me of homeless people I had worked with at home on Vinnies Night Patrol. In the middle of nowhere with a stuffed vehicle and little money there weren’t a lot of options. He brightened up with the offer and scurried off to return a few minutes later saying that his girlfriend had already paid for a room with her centerlink money. He drove the car round the back of the dongas. Through the early evening they chatted with other campers and 4WDers. The story was that they were in a car that hadn’t been used for a few years and so several of the tyres had blown on the way down and now they had run out of spares. In the middle of this a large school group set up right next to us and busied cooking and eating. By a neighbouring camper’s fire an ex NT policeman suspected the couple were running away from something or to something – he’d seen their type before. Chris and I retired to bed early. An hour later the guy asked around the tents and campers if anyone had a spare jumper. He was gone before I could wake enough to help. Through the night I slept fitfully while I schemed ways to get to Coober Pedy and have a spare tyre sent up or sort them onto a bus.
“Down city streets I would roam, I had no bed I had no home
There was nothing that I owned, used my fingers as a comb
In those days when I was young, drinking and fighting was no fun
It was daily living for me, I had no choice. It was meant to be”
“Down City Streets” – Archie Roach
Alice Springs to Cadney Park 535km – Day 18
In the morning I made up a package of warm clothes and $100 cash to leave on their doorstep to cover another night in the room. However there was no sign of them at all. And the dead car was gone too with no obvious wheel rim tracks leading back to the highway.
I suspected that someone may have contacted the authorities and they had been picked up overnight.
Disturbed I headed out onto the highway. Mist. Cold. Heated grips. We traded lead and repeated the day before. Calculated. Planned. Over a lot of miles I retraced all the parts of the trip and shuffled the memories. White lines. Hours passed slowly. Coober Pedy fuel and tea. Huge space. Flat. Further down were the dry Lake Gairdner and Island Lagoon.
“Wake me up lower the fever
Walking in a straight line
Set me on fire in the evening
Everything will be fine
Wake me up strong in the morning
Walking in a straight line
Lately I’m a desperate believer
But walking in a straight line”
“Straight Lines” – Silverchair
Cadney Park to Woomera 531km – Day 19
Woomera, cold. Every piece of clothing I owned. Wet weather gear sealed out the wind. Port Augusta. As we approached a pass through the southern Flinders a wave of cloud descended blocking all hope of a warming. Small towns. Nice coffee. Somewhere out of Yunta we rode out from under the cloud layer into the blue. Near Broken Hill the roadsides were occupied by mobs of goats which provided a final roll of the dice.
In the sunshine
Where the days are longer
The nights are stronger
You’re gonna go I know
‘Cause the free wind is blowin’ through
Technical Mountaineering Course – Alpine Guides Mount Cook
A personal account – Feb 2017
Denali, Greenland, Big Ben on Heard Island, the Himalayas, Sierra Nevada, Bugaboos, the Matterhorn, South America. These were some of the mountains my friends and brothers had climbed on since doing their mountaineering courses to learn the ropes on snow and ice in New Zealand in the seventies. While they did several seasons in the Southern Alps honing skills and developing experience before venturing to other ranges I volunteered in Africa, got involved in family life and forged a career in outdoor education. My work took me away from home regularly – it would have been too hard to justify taking blocks of extra time out for New Zealand and longer expeditions – so I focussed on rockclimbing and extending my collection of books by Joe Simpson, Bonatti, Herzog, Dougal Haston, Jon Krakaur, Galen Rowel and a host of others. Then a chance hike around Grindelwald where I paid my respects at the bottom of the Eiger and saw the stunning Finsteraahorn in the distance surprised me with an intense emotional response and coincided with the opportunity to pursue the dream that had been shelved for so long.
Mt. Cook beckoned above cloud on the flight over. On the drive beside Lake Pukaki next day the sun shone on the green water but clouds foreboded further up the valley. By the time I reached Unwin Hut rain was sheeting down. Waterfalls thundered off the hills behind the hut. The following day the clouds lifted and Cook’s summit caught the sunlight. Rainbows appeared over Nuns Veil across the valley.
The course kicked off at the AG base in Mt Cook Village – intros, gear checks, a little theory and roping up for glacier travel. The group seemed switched on and quite skilled in rope sports. Back at Unwin the picture windows showed off the Malte Brun Range and Mt Wakefield.
We practiced how to prussik out of crevasses and had an early weather check. A quick dash over to the airstrip, pack the chopper and we were away up the Tasman – mountains everywhere, the glacier, moraine walls, lakes. 10 minutes later we landed at Tasman Saddle about 500m from Kelman Hut. We carried gear and food up to the hut. Crampon technique, self arresting on back, front, headfirst, fun. Fine weather. Bill, the chief instructor, a total legend in mountaineering, gave us a detailed intro to hut life and safety procedures. We practised essential knots as the team settled in together. Paul was from Alice Springs and was doing the course to skill up so he could climb with his wife who was an accomplished mountaineer, Pat was the super keen ice climber with funky ice tools that he had already been practising with dry tooling in the rain at Kangaroo Point with Josh who seemed up for any adventure. Alice was contrasting her PhD on seagrass with snow and ice training and Nick from the USA had already been steep water ice climbing back home. Six of us with Tai, who was quietly capable and exuded skill and confidence, and Bill.
A blasting wind arose in the late afternoon. The surrounding mountain landscape was wonderful – peaks of snow and rock, a plunging valley to the east, glaciers and ice falls. Mt DArchaic stood majestic on its own about 10 km away. Misty cloud flowed in from the sea to the west and covered the landscape. Two other climbers pitched up Mt Aylmer and descended through the afternoon.
Terrible weather was forecast but conditions turned out OK. In the clear morning we did snow anchors on the upper flat of the glacier below the hut – top clip snow stakes, t slots with ice axe backups, mid clipped snow stakes buried in compacted snow, then snow bollards which tested under the weight of several “falling” climbers.
At lunch time Bill did a session on racking and carrying gear and provided everyone with harness clips and backpack strap circlips. I felt much more capable and confident after this as I didn’t get tangled up in extraneous gear and had everything in an organised fashion
In the afternoon it was misty and lightly snowing but the wind was light. We pitch climbed for six pitches up the snow slope and across a tricky schrund up to the rock buttresses of the peak above the hut. This was a great session of climbing and working together efficiently while practising anchor and belay setups. It felt terrific to be climbing in the atmospheric conditions.
Later we practised using the ATC Guide in multiple use modes.
Paul, who pulled out of going in My Kitchen Rules at the last minute, and I cooked ginger chicken and ginger tofu with honey soy vegetables and rice for dinner. Typically the food included lots of fresh ingredients, the fridge being a convenient covered hole in the snow/ice outside the hut. We cooked in pairs and pitched in with all the chores.
The pattern of the hut days settled into a sort of routine which always started early and maximised every minute. This suited me, and seemingly all the others, as we had paid lots and were there to learn as much as possible.
Overnight rain and snow continued in the morning. We did intensive skills inside. The hut is really well set up as an instructional space with weight bearing anchors fitted into the ceiling and upstairs landing and other anchors around all the walls. Equalising anchors, lowering using the ATC Guide, abseiling with prussiks above and below, joining ropes, throwing and deploying ropes, abseiling on thin ropes. I had done a lot of rope work prior to the course but still learnt heaps. The afternoon cleared and the wind dropped so we “went outside” and did rock anchors. The views between the clouds were spectacular. All of us were itching to go climbing.
Every evening at 7.00pm there was a radio sched to check who was in each of the huts and to give hut users a detailed weather forecast and avalanche analysis. We took it in turns to use the radio and record the weather details. Later this info was used to formulate a Plan A and Plan B for the following day. Being out in the mountains for so long (8 days in all) enabled us to witness several weather systems rolling through, to relate what we were seeing to the forecasts and to develop invaluable knowledge and experience of the conditions. We learned fast that any activity in the mountains was dictated by the weather. The predictions for the day following the next were ghastly – severe gale up to 110 kmph, 240mls of rain in one day, freezing level 3,600 m (Kelman Hut is at 2500m).
At 4.30 am we started hiking down to the ice fall in the Darwin Glacier. Under headlights Alice, the lightest climber, fell through a snow bridge but held on with her legs dangling in space (she was safely roped up) in a crevasse. We spotted some other climbers high up on a beautiful snow and ice route on Mt Green. Ice climbing practice was done on the glacier ice, starting from low angle right through to vertical and gently overhanging. Pat’s super tools got a workout. The physicality of the steeper climbing felt great. We placed ice screws and made v threads for abseiling, and were astonished at the strength of the v threads.
A circuitous route took us through the icefall and then we plodded back uphill in hot, intense sunshine. Huge weather remained forecast for the next day.
HUGE rain. 80kmph wind at least. The hut shook and leaked a little. I wondered about the welfare of two groups of friends who were supposed to be out in the mountains on this day. It cemented in my psyche that you would have to be really well equipped and dug in to survive such conditions without a hut.
The day was filled with interesting and useful rope skills and practice. Anchor systems, leading through efficiently. First aid kits.
The storm cleared.
At a large crevasse we did practice rescues. In a safe instructional context with Bill and Tai providing backup belays for the rescuers we “fell” in the crevasse while our buddies threw themselves onto the snow, dug their feet in and held the “falls” on their harnesses. The rescuer then made a t slot anchor, transferred the climber’s weight then the climber either prussiked out or was hauled out using an assisted haul or 6:1 system. For me it was powerful learning how quickly the rescuer can be dragged towards the crevasse while trying to arrest the fall. I would have this at the forefront of my mind when on the Bonar Glacier a week later.
The later afternoon was taken up with theory on navigation and route finding and skills – kiwi coils, alpine clutch, locking and hauling systems using tibloc, bachman, microtraxion and ATC Guide methods.
The weather forecast for the following day was good apart from a SE airflow. Sunset was a stunning display of pinks and orange against a black, jagged silhouette skyline. The evening star rose above the outline of Mt Cook and Tasman to the west. Grey, soft cloud edged up over the Tasman Glacier and enveloped Tasman Saddle hut further down the valley.
Over a coffee Bill passed on lots of detailed info on access and climbs on Malte Brun, a mountain that was high on my list of interests.
We prepped for a “summit day”. Lunch, clothes, backpack, ropes, gear. We would breakfast at 4.00 and depart by 5.00 am. A super excited feel enveloped the whole group.
3.45am. Snowing, heavy snow cover, very low visibility, light wind. Learning – SE airflow often leads to cloud and often snow. Back to bed for a sleep in. Up at 6.00am.
Inside – rope skills. Block leading, monster munter, knots with one hand.
The limited vis was perfect for navigation exercises. We trekked through thick mist to Tasman Saddle Hut using various methods to maintain course and estimate distance. On the return we trekked up to the start of our proposed climb for the following day on Mt Aylmer, setting a nice set of steps in the process. This process was invaluable on Aspiring for me a week later.
Evening cloud engulfed the hut again. Oh dear. Maybe we wouldn’t get to summit anything on the course!
Tai shared important background and gave a small group of us tips on climbing Mt Aspiring, topos, routes, access, descent etc over maps in the afternoon.
3.30am. Bill had already been up for a while and had the copious water boiling. His personal generosity with his time for the group throughout each day, I thought, had been instrumental in setting a philosophy for the whole course. He was forever doing myriad tasks to help individuals and the group progress. It seemed no wonder he had been a part of so many expeditions to the Himalayas- Everest, K2, Gasherbrum – he would be a key team player in these situations.
It was snowing lightly and there was limited visibility but in parts of the sky the moon and some stars shone through. We left at 4.45am and followed the previous day’s footsteps through the murk to the base of the south face of Aylmer. In 3 pairs we did 4 pitches up the steepening ice on front points with axe and hammer. The ice was covered in powder snow. Stakes, ice screws and rock protection were used as runners and anchors. The atmosphere and aesthetics were stunning – we were snowed on, the mist swirled and slowly the sky lightened. Openings appeared in the cloud revealed a huge drop off the ridge. Sun struck Mt Cook. Peaks were islands in a sea of valley cloud. Pat led the pitches placing ice screw runners. Climbing the upper pitches was exhilarating – I played with the minimum amount of effort necessary to swing the axe and crampons into the ice for adequate grip. With multiple groups climbing and anchored the feel was of a mini expedition. On the small summit the sun warmed us while below the 800m north face dropped off into the cloud. We simulclimbed and down pitched along a narrow ridge back to a col and then down to the base. Through all the bad weather and training of the week this was a wonderful culminating experience. Back at the hut at 10.30.
A chopper took us back out to civilisation. Shower, clean clothes, dinner at the pub.
Rain again so instead of rockclimbing on the Sebastopol Crag we made rescue stretchers. Tai gave us detailed input on mountains and routes that would be the most suitable next steps for us all. Bill responded in detail to Alice’s request for tips on high altitude climbing.
I had loved living in the mountains for the 8 days. I had tuned in to the weather and begun to understand its ebbs and flows. I had learned much about mountaineering, been exposed to the wealth of knowledge and experience of the two fabulous guides. I felt confident and supremely motivated to undertake my own forays into these mountains, to Europe, America and maybe beyond. I had a list of 100+ peaks to climb in New Zealand with a growing log of info. Perhaps if I tried to do about 4 per year I could have enough for the next 25 years. If I could scramble up Kitchener from Mueller hut then meet up with a mate in a few days time and be lucky enough to score some clear weather to climb Aspiring that would make 4 so far, 40 years later than my mates and brothers, but what matters that! It’s the here and now that counts.
Thanks to Bill Atkinson and Taichiro Naka (see interview “The Climber” Issue 98 Summer 2916/17) and Alpine Guides
The rope connected us. Tied us together. Inseparable. I’d consider and agonise over its necessity many times in the next week. Ours was beefy, strong, purple. A crossover from the static and predictable world of rockclimbing, not well suited to the wild and dynamic higher mountain. Aspiring. The questioning would reach a crisis at the last throw of the dice.
The plan was a good one, to walk in some of the way as the forecast weather cleared, which would give us a shorter day for the main approach to Colin Todd Hut up on the ice plateau. From the Hut we could climb the peak. Rain and storms had swept the South Island as we made last minute preparations and gathered more information.
Snow covered the peaks on the drive in to the road head. Creek crossings were a little flooded for the hired corrolla. We left Raspberry Flat at about midday with the showers seeming to retreat up the valley as we walked. The Matukituki River was swollen green with rain and glacial melt water. Through daisies fields and past cows and sheep the flat trail led us to Aspiring Hut where we rested and took stock of the weather. We pushed on relying on the forecast for an improve which it did for a time. Shovel flat, high hanging glaciers, Pearl Flat, wire bridges over streams, into magical mossed beech forest like Middle Earth. We forged ahead through wet scrub on a lesser trail getting saturated. Scott’s Bivvy Rock beckoned us. Alas even the fancy GPS phone navigation app could not help us locate it. We thrashed around looking. Totally buggered. Showers returned. 7.30 pm. In a tussocky clearing we sheltered from the wind behind a clump of bushes and laid out bivvy bags. “I need food”, Tom.
We stood around miserable, ate dinner in the rain. I struggled into my goretex bag and wrestled into sleeping bag and dry thermals. Then through the long night I fretted between searching for down soddening drips and leaks and asphyxiating due to lack of oxygen. Showers persisted through the night. Miraculously I stayed dry and warm and alive and welcomed the relief of morning. More sprinkling rain brought a sleep in.
The forecast good day did clear a little so between showers we packed up. EVERYONE had advised us not to go up the Bevan Col route in wet conditions so we headed off on a retreat towards the alternative French Ridge Hut which would give us shelter and a chance to dry out, but use up a valuable extra day.
Walking down beside the stream within 100 meters of our Bivvy spot we noticed some of the river rocks were drying out. Maybe the notoriously treacherous steep slabby rock would be dry enough to be feasible. So we decided to change the plan and try for the Bevan Col route. 100 meters up the valley we discovered the palatial, dry (compared to a rainy night in a bag) Scott’s Bivvy rock We could have spent a fun, comfy, dry night holed up in the small shelter under the rock and looked out at the passing showers. We lost the track then and struggled and fought through tangled, wet boulder scrub with the really heavy packs (RHPs) for way too long. The food, fuel, warm clothes, too thick rope, rockclimbing gear, my antique heavyweight ice axes etc etc weighed too much. I thought a lot about Sherpas, porters and people of the past with their heavy loads carried into the mountains as I struggled. I thought about how much work and punishment a body, my body, Tom’s body could take before breaking down.
At the “Head of the Valley” we met up with a Canadian couple who had camped for two days waiting for the weather to clear. They somehow exuded mountain competence and experience. Up past the first waterfall all the rock was wet, and steep! The other two started up a low route on a rising traverse of narrow ledges as Tom and I roped up and pitch climbed a section up to and past a bolt, more vertically and closer to the edge of an abyss on the right. The Canadians joined our route and within sight of each other (this leant a significant air of confidence and commeraderie) we decided the rope was unnecessary as there were no real anchors (we didn’t see any more of the abseil route bolts that must have been hidden from us) and the terrain seemed ok. Just! Tussocks and small plants were good to pull up on, the boots edged on small holds and grooves enabled us to balance our loads and teeter upwards as the drop below beckoned with greater height. One section had tricky moves on a ramp overhanging the abyss. Scared. Tenuous. I’d seen a video of a group having an epic descent in heavy rain. They had given up, camped on a small ledge then finally reached the ground next day terrified and drenched. Eventually we made the flat ridge at the top. Flat. Safe. We navigated together then in mist, sharing our info and topo sketches and trying to make sense of the complex terrain. Down a little then up right along a system of slabs which were covered in snow and wet, balancing delicate moves with the RHPs.
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The slabs dropped off to the valley floor. After crossing a stream gully we slogged up a steep snow gully, sharing the step making effort. Above a buttress we climbed onto a snow arête and saw the Col only a little higher and further over.
In a small clearing in the clouds the white summit cap of Aspiring mystically appeared, lit up by the late afternoon sun. As if rewarding us for our effort and risk, and beckoning us on. A moment of clarity and beauty. Our first view of Tititea.
It had taken 6 hours to toil up the 950 meters to the Col. Having roped up we crossed our first crevasse within meters of starting down a snow ramp and then onto the Bonner Glacier. It seemed to take forever, slowly plodding across the snow and ice. I focussed my mind on looking out for crevasses and tried ridiculously to step lightly. Following the Canadian’s steps was reassuring but no guarantee. At every step I tried to sense the tension in the rope behind leading to Tom, to be ready to instantly throw myself down and dig my boots into the snow so I could hold his fall through into a hidden canyon of ice. This was our first glacier crossing since our mountaineering course. On our own. At the end of a very long day. Stay switched on. Don’t relax. And hope Tom, at the other end of the rope, was doing the same and was ready if I suddenly holed through to thin air underfoot, that he’d hold me dangling by that thread over the icy void. With RHPs. A final killer 100 meter ascent from the glacier slip sliding up a narrow gully took forever before we reached the rocky domes around the hut. 7.30 pm. Totally spent – physically and mentally.
The weather cleared. Aspiring/Tititea is a stunningly beautiful mountain. Any ascent from the valley floor is a huge challenge, nothing is gained easily and the fickle weather dictates the terms. Friends have spent weeks hutted and camped nearby only to return home without having stepped on the mountain. We were trying to make the most of the first period of forecast clear weather for the whole summer season (mid Feb) so far. Boots off. Food. Tea. Dinner. Comfort. Shelter. Relief. Rest. Amazingly at 8.30 pm two fellows arrived who had walked in in one 12 hour push – epic!
The Plan – 3 days good weather was forecast – clear, light winds. So far in New Zealand we had only had the occasional good days in amongst atrocious conditions – rain hammering, winds belting. We shared valuable info on possible ways of doing the North West Ridge with the two other pairs. They were on tighter time schedules and aimed to climb the following day. We would trust the weather and have a day to rest and explore to sort out which way we would take, and to familiarise.
To sleep, to sleep, dry and long. My heart seemed still to be thumping as I lay in the moonlit hut – altitude (surely not), dehydration, exertion?
The “one day walk inners” left at 4.00am and the Canadians, who turned out to be a mountaineering instructor and an Antarctic remote camp supervisor, departed with more confidence at 7.00am. Later on we followed their tracks up the ISO Glacier and then went on to climb on a nearby smaller peak, the Rolling Pin.
We returned via the Shipowner Ridge to the hut. Throughout the day Aspiring stood clear and majestic from every vantage point, intimidating, tantalising and always beckoning. Much later than expected we spied both groups near the summit in perfect weather – around 2.30pm. Later still we saw nothing of them. 2 guides arrived with clients who had walked across from the helicopter landing about 2 km away. Then another 2 couples arrived from French Ridge Hut having made it through the Quarterdeck Pass which was normally cut off so late in the summer. Throughout the afternoon I checked on the climbing pairs, seeing nothing, with a growing sense of concern for their safety.
From all our sources of info there seemed to be four main ways to climb the North West Ridge.
The “full” NWR – very long and time consuming on the lower third. And we had already done the Shipowner Ridge section.
Via the ISO and Therma Glaciers – a quicker way past Shipowner but still slow below the “slab”.
Via the Ramp – a steep snow slope overlaying slabs that bypasses all the rock on the ridge – deemed too dangerous due to avalanche risk so late in the season.
Via the Kangaroo Patch which is a snow slope leading up to the “slab” at 1/3 height.
Late in the day the guides and their clients did a reconnaissance up the Kangaroo Patch, and in the process set a nice set of steps in the steep snow. Based on our own analysis this was also our preferred route. I worried some more about the two climbing parties who were spending so much time on the climb and I considered how remote and isolated they were should anything go wrong.
Tom and I carefully prepared for the next day – lunch, gear, rope coiled and set out, bags packed, clothes laid out, boots and crampons readied. It was reassuring to have time to do all this methodically – for our first big mountain. Just like in our training course we had everything ready for “summit day”. We just hoped the weather gamble would still pay off.
Eventually one party returned at 8.00 pm. They’d had an epic 16 hour day including having to reverse 4 pitches trying unsuccessfully to do a rising traverse on snow across the slopes above the Therma Glacier. The other party returned at 8.30 – 13 1/2 hours. Tom and we’re both thinking that if these parties had taken so long we would be in for a very long day. It was difficult to get to sleep with the buzz in the overfill hut, and to stay asleep later. Keyed up. I drank water through the night top prehydrate.
I awoke before the alarm at 2.50 am, lit the stove and woke Tom. Within 15 minutes there were 5 climbing pairs bustling about. Muesli, 2 cups of tea and another drink of water.
Harness on, crampons, backpack, axe, rope. First out the door. A slowly moving set of tiny headlamps followed up the crunchy set of steps under moonlight and a canopy of stars. At 6.00 we reached the slab. At its left edge we climbed a short easy pitch up the ridge as the other parties got going, and then traversed round left onto the open face. The sky lightened a little. Fears of a bottleneck on the rock dissipated as parties climbed around each other on the fairly straightforward rock. Friendly and unhurried, waiting, moving aside, cheery chat. We made up a commeraderie of climbers from Australia, New Zealand, France, Peru and Italy. It was like a day out on a popular crag – on the “Matterhorn of the Southern Alps”, surrounded by now pink tinged snowy peaks and plunging dark valleys and glaciers and snow all around and below. 3 pitches of roped rock climbing on the left hand face (looking up) brought us back onto the ridge proper. I felt at home on the rock – on familiar ground. We were going well. Tom and I moved efficiently together. The practice climbing we’d done was paying off. I laughed and chattered and waved to the other groups nearby.
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For a time we simulclimbed the rocky ridge with 20m of rope between us threaded round blocks and through gaps in the rock. On both sides verticality plummeted away to steep snow and ice below the cliffs. The sun goldened the surrounding peaks and ranges. The two guided parties dropped behind and one pair went in front.
At 8.30 am we reached the “notch”, a low gap between the rocky lower ridge and the snow and ice of the summit section. Morning tea, stash the rock gear and some water for the descent. We removed the rope as the snow looked straightforward and consistent. Without anchors and belays, which would have taken too much time, any slip or mistake by one of us would mean the end for both if we had remained roped together. I remembered a line from my course, “If you’re not attached to the mountain the rope is a danger to you both”. Crampons back on we made our way up.
Stepped up slowly through the snowfields. As the angle steepened I zigzagged a slow and careful ascent. The ground and snow continued to be fine for well placed steps, driving the side points into the surface for maximum grip. Over near the right edge Where cliffs dropped away I was able to spy another group on the near vertical ice couloir section of the South West Ridge.
Higher up my mind played tricks with the numbers I had written down as staging points. Tom’s altimeter had us at 2870m which I calculated at about 500m still to go but I could hear whoops and see helmeted heads peering over at us from not very far above. The summit ice steepened but it was still ok for us to safely solo so we made our way up subtle slightly lower angled ramps and then out left a little. And then there it was. 10 m away. The others were taking photos of us as we made the final few steps. I was overcome.
I had to hug and shake hands with everyone. Reaching a dream that had percolated for forty years happens only rarely. Time and health and loved ones and the world has to come together in a special combination in that one place at that one moment. The world is indeed a wonderful place. Peaks and lakes and glaciers and valleys and ice and snow and rock blazed with light everywhere. In certain moments time and life is concentrated in sublime adventure.
10.30 am. We photoed and laughed and lunched in perfect windless calm on Tititea’s mountain top. The south west ridge pair appeared to join the merry throng. In a quiet moment Tom and I shook hands in a gesture of thanks to one another for sharing the climb and for making it possible for each other.
Down – switch on again. The ascent is only half the climb. We stepped down the icy sastrugi, slow, measured steps, taking lines that gave the greatest chance of a self arrest should we make a mistake. Minds off the view, eyes locked on feet. Concentrating hard not to tanglefoot or catch a crampon strap. Back at the notch I collected the rock gear. Six of us scrambled back along the narrow rocky ridge together. Awkward moves over the left or right faces or along the actual crest. Up and down. The axes came out for a steep short icy section and the rope for a snow slope protected with an old piton.
At the base of the steep buttress now 8 of us shared ropes and chatted as we abseiled 4 rapells in happy company together. Then all safely back at the slab we descended at our own pace in pairs roped together against the hidden crevasses in the softer afternoon snow.
Back to the hut. 3.30pm. I was tired but not buggered. The climb had been splendid. Easier and less nerve wracking than anything on the Bevan Col route, which was true to popular legend. All our skills had been brought out, but we had not been pushed out of our comfort zones. Bit by bit, section by section, it had all been OK.
Tea. Boots off. Rest in the warm sun. Inner glow. Food.
A tepid bath in a secluded pond in the rocky knolls nearby – heated by the sun, clean and washed, then lie on the warm stone, naked before the stupendous landscape and the sun. Best bath ever.
The guided parties arrived over dinner. Our thoughts turned to the next stage – getting down to the valley. The Bevan Col route filled us with dread even on dry rock so we opted for French Ridge via the Quarterdeck – in spite of the crevasse stories.
Another up at 4.30am and depart at 5.30 morning. We hoped for firm snow in the cold morning. We plodded back across the Bonner then did a slow climb to the higher part of the glacier between ice falls. The blue ice rose like a silent, slow moving wave in front of us.
The sun touched the South West face of Aspiring.
We trudged upwards, the packs a little lighter. A long uphill in the sun and glare took us to the snowy pass of the Quarterdeck which led down to French Ridge and the safety of hiking trails. It’s never over till that lady sings and I couldn’t hear any notes in the breeze. We had also left early to go through the Quarterdeck icefall before the sun softened everything up. So a quick stuff of the face with food and we were off. It was firm and hard still. A little scarey. Down steeply, then across a huge crevasse at the edge of the cliff above Gloomy Gorge, down some more, over (just!) a crevasse with a large foot hole, down, gingerly across then onto a steep section of ice. We front pointed sideways on frozen toe holes from previous climbers. Committed, we continued across then diagonally down. The ice axe pick dug in deep with each step. A massive yawning crevasse waited 30 meters of steep ice below. This was much harder than anything on the climb, the course or even Bevan Col. Trust your buddy. Front point down, some more, careful. I could see the bottom. Concentrate. Tom’s crampon came loose. I dug a little stance for myself and tried to ram my axe handle into the ice for an anchor, unsuccessfully. Tom stayed in control, balanced with his pack on, ice axe dug in, and carefully reattached it. Trust. Don’t fall now. Ice screws were in the bottom of the pack, unavailable. The rescue knife that could have cut us free from one another lay forgotten at the back of my harness. We didn’t both have to go. Then down a step at a time. Eventually onto softer then less steeply angled snow and finally to the bottom. Release. Relief. A close call, just in control, there’s a very fine edge between safety and danger sometimes.
Lunch on a sunny rock. A pair of tar scampered over the snow. Valleys. Mountains. Down snow then scree and rock and into alpine grassland. French Ridge Hut. Tea. Views. Keas. Muesli leftovers for a second lunch. Waterfalls tumbled from hanging glaciers everywhere into the valleys. Their constant murmur, a low hum, sounded like it could be the lady’s song at last.
Down, down, down. In the dark (it’s a habit now) to reduce the risk of getting stuck in the carpark due to flooded streams from the forecast afternoon rain. Down from the bright red hut. The descent track hugged the edge of the drop into Gorge. Tangled roots provided hand and foot holds. Into the beech forest at last. Careful not to twist a knee or ankle. The stream at the bottom, 900 m below the hut, tumbled and churned glacial green and silver over boulders beside mossed trees. Rest, eat, recuperate.
Along the valley floor the track wound back in and out of the forest and daisy fields. At regular rest stops we looked back and far above to the mountain top visible above the ice of the Breakaway. High, aloof, imposing, now with a wind blown cloud plume in the deteriorating weather.
We passed by a variety of people, hikers from across the world, the DOC hut warden off to catch and band robins. And at Aspiring Hut a pair of seasoned climbers, “Aspiring is probably the finest mountain in New Zealand”.
And a group of exuberant young adults who had mountain biked into the clearing to lunch and rest. A similar age to the students I had worked with for many years I struck up a conversation with a bubbly guy and girl at the table where I was tying up my pack. I learned that they were a group from Mount Aspiring College out on an outdoor trip for the day. “I want to climb Mount Aspiring in 2019. It’s my aim”, the shining young man told us with a determined and hopeful grin while pointing up the valley from where we’ve come. “Good luck and good on you”, I responded and thought ‘may the force be with you and may the lady of the waterfalls sing your safe and exuberant return from the journey’. In this brief interchange I sensed a strong connection through a wrinkle in time, a reflection of my self across the decades and across the wooden bench. A circularity, a sense of completion and renewal. The call and wonder of the mountains.
Tom – for being on the other end of the rope, for trusting and for sharing every aspect of the journey
Tai – from AGL for all the info so generously shared about the climb and access
NZAC – for providing the forum for Tom and I to connect up
AGL – for the terrific Technical Mountaineering Course which gave us the skills and knowledge and confidence to take it all on (Bill and Tai)
Adventure Consultants and Aspiring Guides in Wanaka for providing even more bits of information
Message from daughter on the day we left – “Sorry I missed your call. I was at an African dance class. Hope your adventures are sublime.
Birdsville to Jervois Station on the Plenty Highway
710km total including approx. 80km on tours at Batton Hill
4WDing – 2 half days, 5 full days, 1 full day at Batton Hill
150 series Prado 3lt diesel – 87 litres fuel used (190 litres carried)
Fuel available at Birdsville and Jervois.
Water – approx. 5 litres per person used. Prado carried 120 litres, Landcruiser carried 80 litres. Water available at Batton Hill.
Track conditions – sand was quite firm and cool due to prior rain (may have improved fuel economy). Although Eyre Creek was in minor flood south of Bedourie it was dry on the QAA line. Many sand dunes between Birdsville and lake north of Poepell Corner. Also dunes east of Beachcomber Oil Well. Track is very well defined. Only corrugations are between Batton Hill and Jervois. Track was dry. Much more fuel would be necessary in wet conditions due to mud driving.
The tours at Batton Hill are excellent – Both Bush Tucker and Sunset tours are driving based and give guided access to hilly country which is spectacular, different to the rest of the track and not accessible unless on a tour.
Recommend – DO NOT GO anywhere in the Simpson adjoining the Big Red Bash unless you like traffic.
Permits for the Hay River Track are available from Jol Fleming on (08) 8952 3359 or email him at email@example.com.
You will also need a Deserts Parks Pass from the South Australian NPWS.
A journey into the heart of Australia
(Warning – this story contains the names of Aboriginal people who have passed away)
After the Birdsville Track reopened following rain our drive from Mungerannie to Birdsville coincided with The Big
Red Bash – a 3 day music festival of good old Aussie rock (Jimmy Barnes, The Angels, Christine Anu, Paul Kelly…). It seemed like all the owners of four wheel drives were on the same road, mostly in more of a hurry than us. Selfish hoons sped past spraying stones our direction. Muddy sections and water crossings painted our car brown.
Birdsville was almost out of control. People and cars were everywhere. The wait to pay for our precious diesel was 20 mins. 600km away Maree had run out of fuel. Bakery, (quick chat about Eyre Creek), last minute groceries, info on the tracks, water top up, bump into an old friend. People, rockers, cars, vans. “Let’s get out of here!”
On the “town” perimeter we passed lines of camper trailers parked in the dust. Then on to Little Red. Tyres deflated. Cruised to the top among the day trippers. Out along the QAA Line for an hour then we camped on the edge of a clay pan surrounded by fields of yellow and white flowers. Solitude, quiet, isolation.
Stars. We chatted about aboriginal people and culture in the fire’s warmth – this followed on from three days of travel listening to a talking book called “The Red Chief” by Ion Idriess which was a story passed on to Idriess about the life of a leader of the Kamilaroi nation near Gunnedah before the coming of Europeans, and my reading of “The Short Long Book” about Michael Long and Stan Grant’s “Talking To My Country”. It seemed right sitting under the river of the Milky Way and looking up at the Emu In The Sky to be trying to open up to indigenous Australia. I was already anticipating our sojourn at Batton Hill at the north end of the Hay River Track.
It was election night. Updates were texted in to the satphone.
Oncoming traffic on the dunes was headed in to The Bash Bash.
At morning tea I noticed a crack in the windscreen. Game over? Charles had the same but smaller. Must have been from stone impacts driving up the Birdsville Track! It was frustrating to think that our trip could have been compromised by others when we had prepared so thoroughly. I pulled out the windscreen repair kit. Charles’ opinion was that it shouldn’t be catastrophic – laminated glass cracks should only be in one layer. I had visions of the whole thing splintering from the torsional stresses placed on it from the dune driving. And driving through the dust with no windscreen, and the rain!? We squeezed resin into the cracks and decided to keep going and monitor and repair further as best we could. The prospect of return to Birdsville was horrendous.
More dunes. Like a fun roller coaster drive.
Traffic radio calls. “Party of 5 heading east on QAA cresting”. As the calls got louder and clearer we slowed and made contact to avoid dune top meetings or collisions. Tall sand flags mounted on bull bars which appeared above the crests were an early warning system. All the latest 4WDs, some old ones, camper trailers small and large, big vehicles, some looking way overloaded. One landcruiser with a tray top camper slowly made his way past with a broken rear axle – in front wheel drive. Apparently he needed several goes on the bigger dunes but only needed the occasional assistance!
“The Simpson will catch you out when you least expect it” had warned a guy at the Bakery whose whole roof rack had sheared right off.
Fields of white, yellow and some pink lined the track.
We camped in a delightful vale among small mounds topped with mulga trees surrounded by flowers. “Narrow Leafed Hopbush” Camp. Magical gardens lit up all around in the afternoon light. A salted clay pan lay almost hidden nearby. We’d been drawn back into this iconic landscape. Any trip into “the desert” can be a profound and spiritual experience if you open up to the place. We were making a journey deep into the country’s heart.
Some hoons nearby shot off 2 distress flares for fun into the still night sky. Sounds of their drunken carousing and muffled music broke the silence.
A last short section of hectic dunes led us to a lake where we left the crowds and started north on the Hay River Track. Not far away was Poepell Corner where three states meet, Northern Territory, Queensland and South Australia. For some this point is the centre of Australia. In 1845 Sturt set out to find the centre where he hoped to find an inland sea. His party carried a boat but discovered only a sea of endless sand dunes and searing heat – The Simpson Desert. Our plan to miss the crowds and start this trip into the Simpson Desert at the Warburton Crossing and then go up the K1 Line to the Hay River was thwarted by the rain and a flooded crossing which had been closed by National Parks SA.
It was a pleasant change to travel between the dunes instead of across them. Past Poepel Corner Oil Well we entered spinifex country. Then we turned east for a delightful section of dune crossings. A smaller and more intricate track threaded its way rather than the dead straight of the QAA line made by oil exploration parties to transport drilling rigs and where the tops of the dunes had been dozed. Here the dune crests were more intact and steep. Cath drove, gained confidence and loved the challenge and fun nature of the action without the stress of traffic.
The crack had extended slightly so Araldite was added to strengthen the repair – a hopeful act if ever there was one.
Regional ABC QLD radio news drifted in and out of reception with election details. (We are from Canberra!)
We reached “The Glove” and headed north again mostly between the dunes. Red, red soil was a different colour and drier, finer and softer than the QAA. Past “Claypan” we camped under a dune with the world laid out. Threatening showers dissolved into an orange and pink sunset.
Stunning starscape in the early hours.
Another brilliant clear day.
We packed up in the fine red sand considering what the process would be like in the wet. The crack had not extended out but had side-split in a jagged line to the base of the screen. We met our first other party so far on track. Seeming to be grumpy and stressed they complained about the cost of camping at Batton Hill and being ripped off on the Bush Tucker and Culture Tour as there wasn’t much tucker (in the middle of winter).
Then north east into the faint drainage line of the Hay River. We met two more parties, one from the Madigan line. Madigan crossed the Simpson in 1930, establishing a series of camps as he sought the geographical centre of the continent. The Madigan Line tracks leading into camps 15 from the west and out of camp 16 to the east looked well defined. Another passing group told us the people at Batton Hill were all away on men’s business. I couldn’t quite discern whether they were just disappointed or maybe angry as well.
Another beautiful camp nestled under a dune. “Dragon Fire Camp” – a hollow log spouted flame through both ends. Stars. We talked about Land Rights, health, the Apology, why New Zealand and other countries have treaties and not us, the Preamble – the little we knew and the lot we didn’t. In 1992 we had cheered as Mandawuy Yunupingu, principal of Yirrkala Community School was named Australian of the Year. In 1991 his voice had rang out through dance clubs around the globe as front man of Yothu Yindi. “Well I heard it on the radio and I saw it on the television. Back in 1988, all those talking politicians. Words are easy. Words are cheap. Much cheaper than our priceless lands. White promises can disappear just like writing in the sand. Treaty yeah. Treaty now.” He had died prematurely, like many of his countrymen, aged 56, of renal failure.
We reached the spot on the map named “Aboriginal Midden” and parked in the shade for lunch. It’s a large open beautiful spot on a bend in the river bed. Holes in the channel would hold water. It would make a great camp site. Tuned in to the country Fiona quickly found the stone tool midden. Fragments were spread over a wide area. I imagined ceremonies there, large gatherings of people in the past. Stretching back past the end of the last ice age when maybe the ancient Hay River flowed with more regular water. I considered camping there but felt weighed down with too much history and sadness and story. Were they massacred here too, or poison water holed or just pushed off by pastoralists? Some places have a “feel”. I couldn’t have been comfortable there overnight.
Birdwatching along the way. Bustard, red backed kingfisher, little eagles.
We called Batton Hill on the sat phone and checked our tour booking. All seemed well.
I turned on the radio again. We could only get one station. Of course it was NAIDOC Week. The country’s heart was spilling out towards me. In and out of faint reception we listened to snippets of an interview with Timothy Bottoms who has documented the killing of tens of thousands of Aboriginal people on Queensland’s frontier as “new” land was opened up. And the “Conspiracy of Silence” that has taken place as the authorities in Brisbane and Sydney were not interested, and the pastoralists had every reason to keep it quiet.
Delightful driving, landscape, slow and winding, flowered, spinifex, grassland.
A side track led us across the bed of the Hay River which was by then a wide expanse of soft sand. At camp we found rocks that looked like asteroids – “Asteroid Camp”.
Stars, small fire.
We tried to encapsulate and explore more aboriginal culture issues – remote camps, dispossession. Cath told the story of how we had met the Mayor of the Laverton area in WA when we were crossing the Anne Beadell Track a couple of years before. We had crossed paths about 400km along the track. He was returning from a meeting at Tjuntjuntjara which must be one of the remotest Aboriginal communities in Australia. 680km out and south of Ilkurlka it took him 2 days to drive there. The people were his constituents. They wanted to remain on their own country. The Mayor had met there with the people and politicians had flown in for the meeting. He wanted 5 million bucks so he could fix the water supply, improve the health services and the school. To get these things to a standard nearer to those of his other constituents, the white people who lived in remote small towns in WA and also wanted to stay where they were on their land as they had grown up there and had a history going back some generations. Basic human rights in Australia really – health, water, education. Tjuntjuntjara is in the Great Victoria Desert Nature Reserve. I wondered about their rights to the land.
Fi is a counsellor. We talked about cultural genetic inheritance of trauma. “Doctors talk about epigenetic inheritance: the experiences of parents and grandparents passed directly to their offspring. Some families carry genetic illness, passed down through generations. My people inherit the loss of our country. It has proven as incurable and potentially lethal as any cancer”. Stan Grant (award winning international journalist)
The Lake Caroline Claypan is huge and flat and desolate.
I walked alone out into the middle. Enormous space. I felt like running. Cracked, intricate texture.
Flocks of budgies.
Dingo Well is a permanent water bore made by Elder Lindsay Bookie and a conservation organisation. The aim is to reintroduce dingos by providing a permanent water source of the sort which would have been in place pre contact and which would have been maintained and cared for by the Aboriginal people. Zebra finches flocked in great numbers. A small lizard comraded with Cath as she used its hollow log as a luncheon seat.
Afternoon radio played Emma Donovan singing songs of her aunty Ruby Hunter. Ruby had been life partner of Archie Roach having met as homeless teenagers on the streets of Melbourne. Her deep soul voice and words echoed through Emma’s singing as we drove. “Down city streets I would roam. I had no bed. I had no home. There was nothing that I own. Use my fingers as a comb.” Both Ruby and Archie had been forcibly removed from their families when they were young children – part of the stolen generation.
The track became less windey in the afternoon. The gearbox was changed into third gear for the first time in a week. Two large white barked ghost gums provided a gateway into Aboriginal land at the edge of Batton Hill. Lindsay Bookie’s daughter (and now custodian), her daughter and “Puppy Dog” welcomed us, showed where to set up camp and confirmed arrangements for the following day’s tour. We settled in for an afternoon of welcome hot showers, running tap water, clothes washing and relaxing. Groups of noisy cockatiels flew about the camp. We felt a sense of accomplishment and relief at having crossed the Simpson Desert and reached civilization.
Sunset, zodiacal light. Stars, fire.
Charles, an energy scientist, felt strongly that at this time in our shared history we need to have a custodian style of care for the land.
Our guide (permission is being sought to include his Lindsay’s daughter’s names in this narrative) led the “Bush Tucker Tour” from the front in his black 4WD ute. He was quietly spoken, reserved, gentle and sheltered under a beanie and hoodie and big dark glasses. He took us through landscapes we had not seen, hills, mini eucalypt woodlands, rocky mesas, past jagged ridges. The first lookout gave wonderful views in all directions. We chatted a little. When I mentioned I had just finished reading the book about Michael Long he became animated and told me Long was his hero. Also that he had played AFL as a boy and young man. It seemed that in many ways events and our journey into the desert had conspired and led me to this conversation. I told him we were from Canberra and asked if he was from around Batton Hill. His father had been a close friend of Lindsay Bookie. He pointed out his home country on the map – a little over to the west. When his father fixed his hilux they were going to go over to the station there. He proudly told me his father had taken him to Dalhousie Springs on the other side of the Simpson for Land Council business. Where you are from and who you are related to – these are important points of connection.
Further on he showed us some bush bananas which would be in season in summer.At the next lookout he took off his hoodie and showed me his footy team shirt from Santa Theresa. Ltyentye Apurte the team was called. The traditional name for Santa Theresa. The colours were the same as the Saints – St. Kilda. He’d played under 17 at age 12 and then went straight to A grade. Later on he played for the Plenty Highway team.
“Across the Northern Territory this game we love brings hope to thousands. It’s something that I’m really proud of. Every week remote development managers are delivering football programs that improve the quality of life for entire communities. We need a focal point for these life changing projects. My dream is a simple one. To build a learning and leadership centre to encourage children in remote communities to attend school, to develop leadership skills and above all to develop the self-belief so that they can and will succeed in life no matter what. The centre will have a focus well beyond elite athletes. It will provide a sporting and educational model available to all territorians. Using the power of football, the sport that means so much to many, the centre will help young territorians to be all that they want to be. This is our opportunity. These are our children. This is their future and this is my dream.” Michael Long – Michael Long Learning and Leadership Centre website.
I couldn’t help thinking that Michael Long would have been extremely proud of this young man who had been inspired as a youngster to take up sport, continue his education and now to be generously sharing his story and country. Lindsay Bookie, buried adjacent to the Camp, was an Eastern Arrernte member of the Rain Dreaming clan. He had led the native title claim for this now freehold Aboriginal land, had set up Batton Hill Camp and established the Hay River Track. These initiatives provide income and employment for his extended family group. Our guide and the small group who run the camp and tours stay at Batton Hill during the tourist season.
In his book about Michael Long Martin Flanagan imagines “that being denied your chance to stand in the Law, to be initiated, would cut a warrior type deeply. So what happens to a proud man who goes back to the Aboriginal place he was stolen from, his country, and no-one knows him?” Martin went back with Michael to Ti Tree where his father was stolen from. He could not find the right places. “He accelerates down one of the dirt lanes, a plume of red dust behind him. He says, ‘Look out the back Martin! That’s what my grandmother saw when they took my father away on the back of a truck.’ Billowing red dust obscures my vision. He flicks on the CD player. It’s no coincidence the song that plays – he’s programmed it. The song is Archie Roach’s anthem to the Stolen Generation, ‘Took the Children Away’, played loud with his car window down, like he’s broadcasting to the place, telling them why he’s come, and I sit there, white mouth clamped shut.”
Late in the afternoon he took us out to Goyders Pillar on the private property station next door. This is a very special area of small peaks and ragged scarps that catch the changing light at sunset. At the base of the Pillar, almost hidden under a low bush, is a large grinding stone. I could sense the possibility of important dreaming stories in the landscape.
Sunset, stars. A warm night. Crescent moon over ghost gums.
In the morning we paid our respects before departing. Thanked Lindsay’s daughter for letting us travel the Hay River Track through her property on what must be one of the most delightful, remote desert 4WD touring routes anywhere. And for sharing her country.
As we walked back to the cars I wondered if the guide’s and Lindsay’s daughter’s missing front teeth were a sign of deep cultural knowledge, were evidence that against all odds they may have been able to keep their culture alive and walk in both worlds, that they had been able to continue their connection to their country that had lasted hundreds of generations. The oldest living culture on the planet. I marveled at their open generosity. And resilience.
On the last two hour section of corrugated straight line dirt to Jervois I found a remote settlement on the Hema map that we had heard about. It’s a community about 300km from Alice Springs up the Sandover Highway. Cath had randomly met the school principal from there while drinking coffee in a café in Alice. They got talking and she told Cath about a program where people like us volunteer for a couple of weeks in the school listening to kids read. Apparently it makes a huge difference. We started pondering the calendar for the following year.
At Jervois conversation returned again to Aboriginal Australia and we told Fiona and Charles about Elspeth, our daughter, and her work in Roebourne. Her two years with the indigenous community culminated in the premiere of the “Hipbone Sticking Out” theatre show at Canberra Theatre. The community development show was based around the story of John Pat whose death in prison resulted in the Black Deaths in Custody royal commission. In talking about this I could barely hold back tears as I described how at the end of the first performance Archie Roach had sung his song “John Pat” to the boy’s mother who was in the audience and the crowd. The whole show, which featured members of the community including the children that El had worked closely with, was like a barbed spear into the heart or our cultures in collision.
On the long drive home we stopped at Cunnamulla for a break and to stretch the legs. Across from where we parked was the courthouse. Small groups of indigenous people were the only people that waited conspicuously outside. And then back home I read in the paper that apparently Eddie Maguire had regretted his very public racist comments about Adam Goodes, another Australian of the year.
In a fit of nostalgia back home I Youtubed “our” Cathy lighting the fire for the whole planet at the 2000 Olympics and running in that race when all of Australia held its breath for her. Then Peter Garrett and Midnight Oil sang for white Australia to about 4 billion people worldwide at the closing ceremony;
“Out where the river broke The bloodwood and the desert oak Holden wrecks and boiling diesels Steam in forty five degrees
The time has come To say fair’s fair To pay the rent To pay our share
The time has come A fact’s a fact It belongs to them Let’s give it back
How can we dance when our earth is turning? How do we sleep while our beds are burning? How can we dance when our earth is turning? How do we sleep while our beds are burning?
Their black costumes were emblazoned with the single word SORRY. It felt like a collective sorry for the stolen generations, sorry for black deaths in custody and sorry for disposession and massacres.
Can we heal what’s in our country’s damaged and broken heart by properly and honestly acknowledging our black and white history, by saying and being sorry, by making amends? Is it even possible? To respect and value? To connect? Batton Hill shines for me now like one small beacon of hope.
A few days later while waiting for the NRMA house call to fix the windscreen Radio National aired a program examining the indigenous rangers caring for country program across the north of Australia. And its struggle for funding. Mine was the last booking of the day. Andrew arrived at 6.00pm, having started the day at 7.00am, his tenth and last job. He worked with consummate skill and patiently answered all my questions while waiting for the primer and glues to set in the cold weather. I took photos of a heavily vandalised smashed screen in the back of his van as he pointed to the inner vinyl layer that had kept it in tact. All this info could be passed on to my 4WD club. He said he didn’t mind if his (black) finger featured in a photo in the club magazine. I searched for a final metaphor in the smashed glass, the careful fixing up and the sharing of knowledge.
Noticing, opening up, tuning in. Maybe this is where it starts. To each other and the country.Talking to My Country Stan Grant 2016
The Short Long Book Martin Flanagan 2015
Conspiracy of Silence – Queensland’s frontier killing times Timothy Bottoms 2013
Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC) sanctuary 15 – 30 June 2016
Having kept an eye on the SA Outback Roads website for a month it was clear that with the recent rains we were lucky to make it to Kalamurina Wildlife Sanctuary’s gate on schedule. All the way up the Birdsville Track was green. Sanctuary Manager Tess met us at the gate with a welcoming smile and instructions on driving carefully in her tyre tracks. Over the first big dune a large claypan opened up. Over the next was the homestead and nerve centre for the property. Arid desert country at the meeting point of the Tirari, Sturt Stony and Simpson Deserts and bordering Kati Thanda/Lake Eyre, the old grazing property now provides a continuous reserve system linking the Simpson Desert Regional Reserve and Kati Thanda/Lake Eyre National Park. Cath and I, both recently retired, had committed to a two week volunteering stint.
On the first day we settled in to our extremely comfy cottage. After an induction Tess drove us out to a beautiful place on the Warburton Creek, Stoney Crossing. The birdlife was plentiful on the strongly flowing floodwater. Sunset across the enormous sky was stunning.
The property is managed by a couple, Mark and Tess, who are employed by Australian Wildlife Conservancy. On our second day we cleaned and tidied up the Saddlery which is set up as a base camp for scientists and research survey groups. Tess drove out to the remote part of the property to escort back in a couple of palaeobiologists who were investigating 100,000 year old egg shells of Genyornis, a large emu-like bird – now extinct. Showers were threatening. Mark had been stranded in Leigh Creek by closed roads and rain further south. We started a cleanup of the workshop and garage area and unpacked some new air conditioning units. As rain started the scientists just made it out to Mungerannie before the access road was closed again. Apparently when the big rains came on New Year’s Day (180mm) Tess and Mark couldn’t get out for 4 months due to floodwaters coming down from the Channel Country and the damaged roads. Over sunset we watched black kites in groups cruising over the dunes and swales.To minimise damage to the internal tracks we restricted ourselves to the homestead area. Next day we tidied up garden areas and removed bushes that could have been a fire hazard. Cath did some caulking of the cracks in the cottage while I made up some bed bases and tops for work benches. It was a wonderful change to be doing work that at the end of each day you can look over what you have achieved and actually see the results. We drove over to the next door air strip and collected the mail.
Our days took on a pattern. Start work at 8.30am and go thru till 4.00ish including breaks then go for a sunset walk over the dunes and along the claypans birdwatching, exploring and photographing. Dinner, catch up on emails, read. Be in the landscape, experience the weather changes, live on the property, learn about all sorts of things, do physical work.
On day 4 we continued gardening and carpentry. Mark finally got through with his load of solar panels and batteries and food supplies for him and Tess. Amazingly a fuel tanker arrived and filled up the diesel and generator tanks and dropped off some helicopter AV gas drums. There was heavy rain in the Channel Country in the Cooper and Diamantina catchments. We got the TV going in the cottage and discovered that the one station we could get broadcast AFL during prime time 5 nights a week. A shame those games last so long!
Mark burnt the piles of brush that we’d removed from around the buildings. Then we drove out together to check on the campsites in readiness for a couple of small groups of ecologists and volunteers – to “Pretty Place”, “The Island”, “Stoney Creek” and “Boat Ramp”. Yellow flowers were starting to carpet the landscape. Mark spotted a red backed kingfisher. After lunch I helped unload the heavy solar gear at the airstrip hanger and washed down the vehicle that had been in to town. It’s quite a job to remove all the mud to ensure all the weed seeds are removed. Kalamurina is mostly weed free but a few species are knocking at the fence to get in.
On day 6 heavy morning fog lay in the home claypan. I cleaned up and fitted a new battery in the tilt trailer hydraulic unit and finished the bed bases. Cath got the plum job of “tyning” the outer part of the airstrip which involved driving slowly and carefully up and down and round in the landcruiser ute towing a heavy meal square which scraped the ground smooth and free of weeds – all while listening to the only cd in the cab – Slim Dusty. I started fabricating some signs and working on a mobile workbench.
Day 7 we worked on the airstrip together, driving and hoeing the round markers. The strip is used for visiting tour groups and emergencies mainly so must be maintained to RFDS standards. The property strip is clay based, next door’s is sand based and 60km away at Mungerannie on the Birdsville Track there is an all-weather gravel strip. We had the afternoon off and went birdwatching at “The Island”.
Next day we were homestead bound again due to rain so I assisted Mark prepping the area for the solar installation. On the property nearly everything is recycled. I spent time stripping the plastic off various bits of copper wire to take into town for recycling. Cath assisted with stocktaking the RFDS emergency box. In the afternoon I continued with measuring up and routing the signs while Mark did several jobs. He’s a super talented guy with immense skills developed over intensive time in the bush. He welded, backhoed, fenced and road maintained like an artisan. He and Tess must be some of the hardest working people in the Southern Hemisphere. They have amazing attention to detail and safety and deep care and concern for the property. We drove out to “Stoney Crossing” and saw pelicans, kites, spoonbills and a host of others. 4.8mm of rain fell overnight and in the middle of it I inexplicably received a text message.
I finished fabricating some metal signs and together we painted a stack of survey pegs. More showers fell during the day and Cath had an afternoon off. In the evening we watched a video from the collection, counted out our supply of teabags and rationed our remaining fresh vegies.
On day 10 we did more signs – I routed and Cath painted. We sorted and cleaned the sheds some more. In the afternoon it fined up and in the evening we walked west to a large claypan through the now blooming desert.
At last next day the roads had dried out so after lunch by the Warburton we spent the afternoon out at “Mia Mia Camp” dismantling and removing broken rural structures and old building materials – tin, timber, logs, poles, wire. The rechargeable angle grinder worked a treat along with the shovel, mattock and rake hoe.
Day 12 was Sunday. We had the day off. More rain overnight so a group of campers were brought in from “The Island” camp to base themselves in the Saddlery.
On day 13 we finished the sheds and continued on with the signs. Day 14 the weather cleared again. I washed down the vehicles that had been into Mungerannie and back the day prior. We continued routing and painting then walked out to “The Island” to stretch the legs. On day 15 I washed down the wash down pad before the drying mud turned to concrete. We finished the set of signs which stood proudly against the back wall of the super tidy and clean sheds. We walked parallel down the dunes to where they dropped steeply into the Warburton. Wildflowers profused in white, pink and yellow and a variety of birds sang the sunset.
On our final day we packed up the “Saddlery” after the visitors left, cleaned the cottage, pulled out a line of star pickets in the home paddock and packed the car for a crossing of the Simpson Desert. The tracks on Kalamurina Wildlife Sanctuary were still muddy so the annual July bird survey had to be cancelled. More rain was forecast. We departed and made it out between closures of the access road.
Brown song lark
Red capped robin
Gull billed or Caspian tern?
Horsfields bronze cuckoo
White-winged fairy wren
This was a pretty good tally for us beginner birdwatchers.
Special thanks to Mark and Tess and AWC for the opportunity to live in the desert and make a small contribution.
Thanks to Dr Phil Tucak (AWC) for corrections and to AWC for permission to publish this narrative and photos.
3 days in the Grindelwald area – in the company of the Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau.
Absolutely 3 of the very best days of hiking in the world.
Above Interlakin is the Grindelwald Valley which is a base for skiing, farming, touristing and climbing. The countryside which makes up the forehills of the high mountains and the winter ski slopes are accessed by a network of small mountain trains. Summer hiking trails criss-cross and thread together into a wonderful network offering numerous possibilities of single day, multi-day and shorter walks.
Schynige Platte to Faulhorn
“If there’s a walking heaven this is it”. Cath, after an hour.
“This is the best hiking I have ever done”. Me, after two hours.
The trail started 1500m above the valley floor. The Panoramaweg Trail wound along a wide ridge. Up and over small rises and boulder fields. Alpine grasslands, small conifers, low shrubs. Rounded peaks. Across the deep valley in the south the Eiger, Monch, Jungfrau and a host of other mountains thrust skywards with snow fields and hanging glaciers perched precariously anywhere the cliffs weren’t quite vertical or overhanging. These were our companions throughout the day. Away down below the precipice and plunging forest on the north side of ridge top path Interlaken nestled between two jade green lakes. We crossed steep scree slopes and zigzagged our way steadily upwards. Cow bells rang out on small hanging fields below.
Everywhere the mountain scenery was superlative. We were both overcome with the beauty of it all at various points and a feeling of deep happiness that we were able to experience the landscape, to be in it, to walk through it, to feel it, to wonder at it. Eventually at the peak of the Faulhorn was our mountain hut, a sort of low key hotel really with dormitory style bunks and a restaurant – luxury.
As the sun set on a perfect day wisps of mist rose from the valley at times obscuring and then clearing from the giants of snow and rock and ice across the valley.
Dinner in the highest and oldest mountain hotel in the alps. Dorm beds among the soft night sounds of 20 other hikers.
The half of a day walk took us all day due to the time spent filming and photographing. Accessed by cog railway from Interlarken to Schynige Platte.
11 km, 700m ascent overall.
Faulhorn to Grosse Sheidegg
Down, down, down. To twin alpine lakes that reflected the high peaks on the opposite side of the valley. Postcard picture perfect. Lunch by a stream. A marmot sat on a perch and squeaked a warning to his mates of a lurking fox in the tussocks below. All nationalities wandered past. Mountain bikers, para gliders lent a playful colour to the backdrop and the sunshine. We grazed on wild blueberries as the trail flattened and sidled across alpine grasslands. All the time the Eiger stood powerful and shaded flanked by grey rock towering peaks that grew even bigger as we approached.
Bus down to Grindelwald at the end of the day
Grindelwald to Kleine Scheidegg
We climbed steeply up the “Eiger Trail” from another cog railway station and along a series of shelves close to the foot of the Nordwand – the famous north face. My climbing passion had been kindled, sustained and fired by stories of early trials and ascents of this fierce wall. It’s one of the three classic north faces of The Alps, the Matterhorn, the Grandes Jorasses and the Eiger. Facing away from the sun they are iced, cold, prone to grim weather and sudden storms. 64 people have died trying to climb the Eiger so far. Terrible tales of tragedies and accounts of “heroic deeds” and climbing narrative hold a revered place in mountaineering literature.
When the track reached its highest point I followed a faint climbers’ path up to the base of the wall. I retraced the steps of Heinrich Harrer, Hinterstroiser, Dougal Haston, Ulli Steck, Toni Kurtz and the cream of the world’s climbers. I stepped slowly, taking time and paying my respects. I reached a snow field that rose to meet the wall at the start of the first ascent route then turning round I found a cairn of stones with some sticks nearby and a few pieces of old climbing gear. Closer inspection revealed the timber to be a broken cross wired together. I fixed it and replaced it into the small rock pile. This day the weather was perfect but still the place felt cold and foreboding. I could make out the original route and even imagine myself onto parts of it lower down. Higher up the hidden snow slopes, the scale of the wall and hanging glaciers were a terrifying prospect. Being with the mountain that I had read about and conjured from the stories for so long gave me a powerful sense of acknowledgement – that it was real, that I was here, that this was a special place for people with a love for the mountains. I didn’t need to climb it or anything even like it but I felt deeply connected to the place and the history and climbing in general.
The next day we caught the cog railway train that runs up through the Eiger to the shoulder of the Jungfrau. On the journey down we were accompanied by two young Americans who had just finished climbing a route on the east ridge of the Eiger. They had spent a cold night out on a small ledge the previous night before topping out. They were over the moon about their exploit and we yarned and chattered all the way down.
The next day was cloudy, windy and raining.
I surfed the internet looking for mountaineering boot suppliers in London. Perhaps now life times were right for me to start getting some skills for some trips and easy climbs in the higher mountains of the world.
After a section through forest the end of the old “Western World” could be picked out by a few hundred meters of road sided by some old, unused buildings – no man’s land. There were no border controls at all, just a small police car, a 24hr gambling place on the Hungary side and an old derelict building sprouting grass. I wondered what it was like living under communist rule. A little further on was an outdoor border museum with trenches, gun placements, concrete sheds and antitank constructions next to a line of barren land.
The Old Town was not that well preserved but was thronging with tourists.
Police were everywhere in the ritzy part of town for a meeting of the EU on security.
The river current was pumping.
During the day we bumped into the NZ couple again.
Our booked accommodation on web turned out to be a horse riding club on the very outskirts of a small town, with brand new facilities next to a sheep shed with a thatched roof.
It turned out that Hungary has quite a strong economy – manufacturing electronics and cars and agriculture. The well to do would come out to the horse klub for weekends of riding and training.
65 km. The total ticked over 1200km
A short day was necessary to juggle accommodation on the route. Some sections have no accommodation so we had to do either longer or shorter days.
Thermal pools provided delicious soothing to muscles that had been working. Trying to work out the etiquette of where to change and how to operate the security arrangements with extremely grumpy staff was not easy or intuitive.
In the delightful Old Town a street musician sang and played piano accordion, serenading lunchers with traditional tunes and love songs.
Further east we cycled beside the massive Audi factory, the biggest engine factory in Europe. A train nearby was packed with hundreds of freshly wrapped new cars awaiting delivery. A section of busy roads was full of scary fast cars and big trucks.
At the edge of a small town we headed into several kilometers of muddy, dirt roads that twisted through thick forest. Later a deer was spooked which leapt out of the scrub at the side of the track, heavily antlered, then galloped across corn stubble to leap over grass and disappear.
Kumaron seemed very East European – drab blocks of flats, poor houses and a bit run down but with a large new factory.
Our small hotel oozed with old communist world charm with a reception host straight out of the Adams Family. He was a little overweight, pasty faced with straight slicked hair. He spoke incredibly formal English with a deep Russian accent. We could have been in the heart of Transylvania.
A day in Slovakia
Over the bridge into Slovakia, Komarno was a ship building industrial town.
We followed the riverside dyke with the Danube on the right and green fields and small villages on the left. Often the land was at a lower level to the water in the river that was held in by the dykes. This was tough cycling – no bakeries or coffee shops! – small coop grocery shops and the occasional fruit stall.
A tower in a park gave a fine view of the sweep of the river. By now it was hundreds of meters across. A little further on a long narrow pebble beach stretched round a bend.
We took a deep gravel path for 5.5 km as an alternative to being on a busy road. This was hard going.
A later section had us back on busy roads with trucks. We found these roads nerve wracking. This was why we had not done much cycle touring in Australia. I had once done cpr on a cyclist near Canberra who had been struck by a car and later died. Mostly the route only included the occasional foray onto quiet country roads.
From Sturovo on the river bank we had a wonderful view across the Danube to the Basilica, the castle and the old town of Esztergom.
The bridge that led us back across the river into Hungary had been destroyed in WW2 and had not been rebuilt until 2001 with input money from the EU. The two towns had been separated by the river for 56 years.
We had a stunning world fusion dinner in a small new restaurant in a very down beat part of town with 4 American cyclists. Ah the treasures of the unexpected in travel!
With the peloton through Slovakia
The day started with Cath bumping into a very old friend who was cruising up the river from Budapest.
On the way to our first ferry across the river we met our America acquaintances again then joined poms, New Zealanders, a Mt Isa crew and a host of others as we waited for 20 minutes for the barge to come over.
On landing we took off in the middle of the peloton heading east. Soon the Mt Isa crew sidetracked while the yanks searched for a WC. We were distracted by the thermos and morning tea in the forest so the peloton dispersed only to meet up and reconfigure from internationals as the day progressed.
Forest trails, busy roads, delightful towns, riverside parks, floodplain meadows. There was great variety around the famous Big Bend in the river. Cycling surfaces alternated from the best to the worst.
Then another ferry back into Hungary. A couple of mean looking motorcyclists looking very wild and Germanic sat astride an old BMW. I asked if they wanted to swap bikes with us to be answered in deep Aussie drawl that they might think about it for the downhills only. I asked where his Triumph was (he wore a Triumph jacket) to which he replied that it was back in the garage at home in Australia. Looks are deceiving. He wished us a good journey with a big grin as he tootled past.
More busy nerve wracking road sides and forest cycle paths by the river led to Szentendre.
64km (seems like 63 and 64 have become our lucky daily numbers)
A sleep in and a short day.
We rode slowly to savor our last day on the bikes
Twisting dirt tracks in the forest, rough paved paths, complex linking back roads, beautiful smooth bike paths through deciduous trees past coffee and food stands – accompanied always by the strongly flowing river that had widened to about 250 meters across.
I felt sad to be finishing. The routine of getting up, having breakfast, packing the panniers and spending the rest of each day pedaling through the countryside, villages and towns, mingling with the locals and making friends with other cyclists from around the world had become our world. Simple, journey, ever changing, active, fun.
As we reached the series of bridges across “our” Danube our eyes spread with our grins. At every turn was a magical building in the distance or a stunning scene. The Parliament building like a Disney castle, tall steeples and high domes, turrets and cupolas, coloured mosaic tiled roofs. Budapest is a beautiful city full of liveliness and atmosphere.
On the famous chain bridge, over the strongest current in the middle of the river we photoed and videoed as it slowly sunk in that that we had finished, made it, reached the conclusion of our journey. We had pedaled across half of Europe, from the western world into the east.
We had immersed ourselves in the lanscapes, cultures and rich histories of the countries. The Danube had guided us on a journey deep into our own personal past and helped us confront our own cultural outlook.
The exit from the city was spectacular. Along the cobbled street down to the strongly flowing Inn River then along its bank, through a pepper pot watch tower to the point at which the three rivers met. The flooding Inn water was dirty brown with silt from the Austrian highlands. It was a stark contrast to the deep green of the Danube. Spires, steeples and clock towers rose behind us as we pedaled across a suspension bridge to the north bank. A long luxury tour boat slowly pushed upstream against the current. The old castle brooded in mist on the steep hill above.
Our cycle path ran between the river and the road. This section between Passau and Vienna is reputed to be the most popular cycle route in Europe and therefore probably the world. It was a Sunday, the end of the local’s holidays, and beautiful weather, but we were still surprised by the numbers on the trail with us. Race trainers sped past. E bikers floated by with enviably little effort. Touring groups came as individuals, couples, pairs and groups, young and old and all between. Day trippers from Passau had the pleasure of cycling out for a distance, luncheoning in a biergarten, crossing the river on a small ferry and then returning on the other side. The valley was deeper in this area. Forested slopes rose steeply on both sides.
45 km took us to our pre-booked gasthaus on the bank of the river. From our cool balcony above the hanging purple and pink geraniums we watched the world go by. Sleek tour boats, speedboats, an occasional long barge, puttering small ferries, water skiers, two sea kayakers, long timber craft of the locals and the stream of riders.
720 km marked the half way point of our whole cycle trip. This differed to the guidebook by about 100 km which was made up of extras we had done along the way. Bodies, bikes, interest, accommodation, weather, budget. Most aspects of the trip were going well. Except for the endless schnitzels and fries and identical salads.
Late in the night the room turned into a mosquito nightmare. Shut the windows and the heat built up. Head under the sheet, sweat runs down. Lights on we hunted them down one by one three times in the night before we could sleep relaxed.
City of young people
Rain overnight and somber clouds lent a clean softness to the river and the valley. Again the forested steeps rose on both sides. White swans in groups groomed and stately stroked the grey green water which reflected in its stillness. Small villages were passed on both sides but mostly we were alone with the river, the forest and the path.
In the afternoon rain pelted down as we coffeed in a backerei. Further along one group sheltered under a large sheet of plastic while nearby another group sheltered under the narrow eve of a covered Jesu shrine – ah the usefulness of religion.
Approaching Linz the bike path adjoined the edge of a highway for a fair distance. Traffic noise from the speeding cars and trucks assaulted our senses. Cath became a little shell shocked. As we picked our way through the trams and people throngs to our city hotel I was struck by the number of young people. Up until this point our journey had been mostly through small villages and in the “old town” sections of small Bavarian cities which probably had an over representation of older folk. This city seemed refreshingly young and vibrant in contrast. Unfortunately we’d miss the electronic arts festival with our side trip to Berlin for a few days for Cath to do a course for work.
65km for the day. 785km total.
Berlin (side trip)
Bassy music thrummed across Alexanderplatz as we exited the subway. A gentle buzz of people walking, sitting, chatting, hanging out, “chilling” through the late afternoon. Almost like a side stage to the main show of people round the huge, fountained, public square. No crowds of men in suits and women office attired hurrying home from work here. Warm in the sun. Heavily dreadlocked, tattooed, jewelled. The band of young men played out. A type of electronica folk with a deep, driving beat. Acoustic guitar, flute, singer/rapper/speaker and a guy playing a plastic ceramic didgeridoo shaped like some Celtic sea horse. Like the crowd I was captivated. The synthesised sound washed off the buildings. Amplified. Everyone was there, a couple of hundred had been drawn to the tunes and the spectacle. Mid song the voice went into a pitch about the illegality of what they were doing and what we as audience were doing as participant spectators in breaking the law against recreational noise in public places. It was music and entertainment he exhorted us to acknowledge and appreciate, not noise. The crowd cheered him on.
My filming was foregrounded by an older women in a burqa with her son. New Berlin, and Germany itself maybe following on behind, was showing itself to the world right there in “Alex”. The place that had been named after an emperor of Russia, was a major commercial centre and the heart of Berlin’s night life in the twenties, then separated into East Berlin during the Cold War before the climactic largest demonstration in East Germany during the “peaceful revolution” that precipitated the fall of The Wall in 1989. And the world watched on fascinated and interested. People of all colours
and persuasions, a real multikultur. I wondered about the softly approach of the authorities that let this music happen. Young people openly challenging the establishment. The government of the country trying to be good in the world, opening its borders to the Syrian refugees, closing its nuclear power stations and striving for renewables – we had cycled past a thousand biogas cornfields.
Earlier in the day we had walked across the now barren ground where between 1933 and 1945 the Nazi regime headquarters that housed the Gestapo and the SS had stood. Alongside a permanent exhibition outlines clearly the terrible impact on people and the world of WW2 Germany. Immediately following the war the Germans were traumatised, having been both perpetrators and victims. Unable to talk about their experiences they launched themselves into the economic miracle of post war Germany. In the 60’s, as more details of the holocaust became public through war crimes trials, sons and daughters rebelled, accusing their parents of being complicit in the war. The older generation, the same as my own parents, were “unable to grieve”. The children and grandchildren of the war may have intergenerational trauma. There may be similarities to my own family and my country on the other side of the war with parents unable to articulate their personal stories. Nearly every family in Australia at the time was touched by tragedy in the war but we in Australia don’t have to carry the guilt of perpetration.
From my seat on the edge of the fountain I looked out over the square at the world of mainly young people. I hoped that the Syrian asylum seekers found a safe home here, that the hard line right wing and neo nazis could be kept in check, that Germany could continue its efforts for good in the world. And that my own country could do some of the same.
The music played on as a firebreather added to the spectacle.
On a bike tour of the new Berlin next day we stopped outside a large, dilapidated brick building which now held the most famous techno club in the city. Opening sometime Saturday pumping parties lasted drug powered into Monday or Tuesday. The long weekends didn’t matter a lot to those without jobs. For lots of others it was a fly in for the weekend to Europe’s best scene then home to Stockholm, London or Dublin for work Monday morning. Bearheim. Apparently the best sound system in the world. Germany is the world centre for techno, trance, house, dance music. Nudity and sexual experimentation is welcomed – in the cavernous, dark, basement there are things that cannot be unseen once witnessed apparently. You wait for hours to get in and the bouncer doorman decides who passes through. It’s a big industry for the city, police are lenient with the drugs. Like “Brave New World” I wonder if this has an element of soma for the masses.
Whole, cool suburbs are plastered with graffiti art. Now the hippest suburbs have the best street art. The world’s top artists of their genre have been paid big money to fresco building facades and sides.
In a total one off for Berlin we cycled down the main strip of a major airport that had been recently decommissioned because it was a little small and situated in the city precincts. The government had anticipated selling off the land for development but couldn’t get past a militant crowd of thousands of protestors claiming it needed not to be changed and belonged to the people. So having been constructed by Hitler as the world’s best airport in 1936 to impress all visiting countries, having been used by the Nazi Luftwaffe during the war, then been a transit point for refugees from all over Europe at the end of the war, and then a distribution point for food and vital supplies during the early partition of the city, it is now a massive public park and recreation field, and the hangars are being used as a processing facility for thousands of refugees from Syria – kites of freedom in the wind sport section make a colourful welcome.
Some of the suburbs in the former East Berlin are now the places of choice – parks, multiculturalism, vibrant, lots of young people, old and comfortable feeling, very hipster. I wonder at what a grand vision socialism was – all with equal rights, access to housing, employment, health care, education, shared resources, sublimating one’s own needs to the common good – a shame that it didn’t work and was decimated by dictators, power, corruption. To stand next to the Wall, to touch it, to look at the paintings is to feel the power of people to grab the opportunity when the time is right to change the world. In 1989 the Wall was breached and torn down, then like dominos the countries in the eastern block all overpowered their communist masters in a peaceful revolution and the iron curtain just disappeared almost overnight.
Back on the bike – Part 2 continued
Darkness and Evil
Lynz to Arldaga.
Along the river out of Linz we passed a very large area of heavy industry – big smoke stacks, piles of coal.
We cycled and pushed uphill to the Mauthousen concentration camp memorial. For a time the Mauthousen Gusen complex had the harshest conditions of any in the concentration camp system. 90,000 people were murdered there through beatings, shooting, lethal injection, frozen to death or in the gas chamber. We walked through the international memorials and through the camp with deep sadness and shame that our species could have sunk so low. And the moral wrongs being committed now like our own Australian government’s torture and harsh treatment of refugees and asylum seekers in offshore camps (as highlighted by UN and Amnesty International). The Nazi stealing of 200,000 children from Poland was the same as Australia’s “stolen generations” of indigenous children – at the same time and later – for the same racial reasons as part of the White Australia policy. The killing of inmates at concentration camps was similar to massacres and murders of aboriginal people in frontier Australia. There aren’t even many memorials in Australia to these massacres and murders, just a few place names like “Poison Waterholes Creek” and “Murdering Gully”.
Camaraderie on the trail
Arldaga Markt to Melk
A flat tire on Cath’s bike was traced to a tiny shard of stone worn into the tire. Another long day in heat through sections of boring pavement with no towns or change. We kept bumping into a nice group of yanks, who were having their luggage transferred to hotels at the end of each day, and also a Swedish couple who asked us “do Germans drink more beer than Australians?”
At Melk the famous Abbey had wonderful gardens and lots of tourists.
This section between Passau and Vienna was turning out to be not as good as the first section. We were finding the cycle path and signage in excellent condition but the touring not as interesting as the first section and a lot more crowded.
55 km (passed 900 in total)
Melk to Traismauer
A cool early start led us into the famous wine region – The Wacchau Valley – vineyards on steep slopes on both valley sides of the river valley. Old medieval towns of Durstein, Krems, Splitz – castle ruins on high rocky knolls, old church/forts, gated towns, perched on steep slopes above the river.
The riding was more interesting. Plums, grapes, wild fruit was at hand. The path was busy with day tripping cyclists and lots of river cruise boat tourists.
The afternoon was another in the series. Over 30 degrees C. In weather like this at home we probably wouldn’t go out for a cycle.
Traismauer to Vienna
Another cool early start. We felt and thought we looked like cyclists, making good pace.
At 1,000 km we stopped to high five and photograph the bike computer. We were totally stoked to have covered such a distance and felt very proud of ourselves.
The Swedish couple caught up and we rode with them for a while chattering about cycling and our countries of origin. They had done a trip from home to Italy and back several years before and others that put our own 1000km into perspective. Achievements are relative. There is always someone out there who has gone further and done more than you.
While we morning teaed with the Swedes a New Zealand couple rode up and joined us. It turned out they had been riding and camping in Europe for 4 1/2 months and done 4,000+ km including Eastern Europe and Sicily in 40 degree heat. This was great international fun – smiling, laughing, sharing stories and tips and perspectives.
The afternoon was a long, hot grind into Vienna. Underneath circling, interweaving highways, past street art and on into the big city.
We slumped into our old world Viennese apartment with huge rooms and dated furniture.
70km, 1050km for the trip. End of stage 2
My bike needed a steering head repair and Cath’s needed a gear service.
Coloured images on concrete walls, graffiti art
Wild faces, fantasy and fantastical
In snapshots under freeways beside the Danube Canal
Cyclists flying – roadies, tourers, commuters
Apartment large grand from decades past
Like the inner city only centuries gone
Stone faced buildings line the streets
Museums, churches, town hall rathouse, parliament
Statues everywhere self-aggrandizing
Horse riding Franz, Eugen, Leopoldo imposing
Just a little silly now
Hofburg palace a grand show 700 years of ruling wealth
And the highest price for a WC
Famous Viennese cafes nice coffee grumpy staff
Tourists grouping walking everywhere
Mozart light and frilly trillies in a golden hall
Green cool park respite
Share the bench with Muslim family
Refugees most probably war at home
Kids smile and walk and play on paths and grass
Mum and dad watch the pigeons and their new countrymen and women
Such a long journey
To a new world
Time now ticks awfully slow
New jobs, friends, company, chatting, home, relatives
Takes so long
The cost of safety
Cool books coffee shop
Friendly waiter smiley makes a change
Vienna Boys Choir – flat, lacking childlike joi de vivre
Followed the Danube River from its source in Donaueschingen to Budapest.
38 days total
12 days not cycling in Regensburg, Passau, Vienna, Budapest and a side trip to Berlin.
26 days cycling including about 4 short days and other days between 40 – 80 km per day (mostly 50 – 65km).
Carried our own stuff and planned our own journey with assistance from info from friends and Bikeline guidebooks (Danube Bike Trails 1 – 3)
Stayed in hotels, bed and breakfasts, pensions, zimmer freis – mostly booked on the Internet through Booking.com, Airbnb and TripAdvisor a day or a few days before.
Mostly we had breakfast provided at the accommodation, bought lunch food at supermarkets and shops to have a picnic and went to restaurants for dinner. Used thermoses for tea and coffee supplemented by bakeries and coffee shops.
Only cycled occasionally prior to the trip but did a practice ride with our planned luggage and gear for 40km the week before departure.
Got sore bums, shoulders, wrists etc at the end of long days but not enough to detract from the enjoyment.
Fitted everything in a rear two pannier system each and I also had a front basket.
Took our own bikes from Australia which turned out to be much easier than we thought. Saved a fair bit of money doing this and also had our old faithful bikes. 2 punctures, one gear set service and one head set service on the way – there are lots of repair places. Our mountain bikes were fitted with touring tyres.
List of stuff taken
The bike – bike, spare tube, pump, tyre levers, chain lube, rag, bike tool (Allen keys, spanner set), puncture kit, duct tape wound round pump, small length cord for emergencies, bike lock and key, rear rack and pannier system, two small water bottles, thermos, lightweight head torch and red flashing rear light for limited night/dusk riding, bike computer.
Riding gear – helmet, shoes with cleats (Cath took walking shoes like nearly everyone else on the track), light cap to fit under helmet, sunglasses, lightweight high vis vest
Clothes – padded shorts 2, long sleeve cotton shirts for sun protection 2, merino t shirt, merino long sleeve, light soft shell jacket, rain jacket, rain pants, 2 underwear, cotton t shirt, street shoes, 2 pair light sox, polar tech gloves, big washing up gloves, tights, broad brim hat, travel trousers
Toiletries – toothbrush, toothpaste, small soap, moisturiser, nail clippers, small amount toilet paper
First aid kit – bandages, sports tape, band aids, dressings, personal meds, antibiotics, betadine etc
Catering – sharp knife, spork, small plastic plate, cup, zip lock bags
Admin – universal adaptor plug, double adaptor, charging cords, mobile phone, iPad mini, go pro camera, notebook, pens, German phrase book, Bikeline guidebooks 3, cash, debit/credit card, passport, glasses (all accommodation had free wifi)
Other – lightweight dry bags, small lightweight day pack, sunscreen
Notes – I didn’t use the rain pants, long sleeve merino, tights, polar tech gloves, wash up gloves or the second pair of bike shorts as we had hot weather nearly all the time and very little rain. We could hand wash riding clothes on arrival at accommodation and it was dry the next morning. I would recommend bringing the warm and wet weather gear. Cath made do without the softshell. We carried some food with us from day to day. The front basket was very convenient but did affect steering when loaded. Schwalb marathon tyres are great. I would recommend a side stand for the bike – everybody else had one. Lots of people in the latter sections were having their luggage delivered to hotels each day as part of commercial tours with hired touring bikes and also e bikes.
Trying to prepurchase a train ticket for our bikes from Zurich to the source of the Danube at Donaueschingen (in Germany the river is called the Donau) was impossible from Australia. This was a key logistic in bringing our own bikes from Australia. All had gone smoothly from packing them down into cardboard bike boxes, taking them in the day prior to travel to the bus station because we couldn’t book a big enough taxi, having them accepted as part of our luggage by Cathay Pacific, picking them up undamaged at Zurich after two fights, taking them through the airport on a luggage trolley and then to the train ticket office. Everything hinged on being able to carry them on the train. Sometimes in travel you just have to go with the flow. Our train, and every other one we have seen since had a whole section on each of several of the carriages devoted to bike carriage. Yay. Bikes were everywhere, part of the culture, mainstream, not just the pursuit of super fit MAMILs (middle aged men in Lycra) and MAWILS.
After 36 hours of continuous travel – taxi, bus, two flights, two trains – Donaueschingen station provided everything we needed to reassemble the bikes, a covered area and a big bin for the cardboard. Coffee and a lunch roll at a bakerei, wander through the delightful small town, history, Furstenburg (730 years of brewing beer – no sign of hipster craft beers here), tinker some more with the bikes at the small hotel, have fun dredging up my schoolboy German. Ready for 1500 km to Budapest.
Part 1 – Cycling the Danube – Donaueschingen to Passau
Setting out on a 35 day journey involving one of the classic modes of self-propelled travel felt marvelous. We rode through a wide valley, fields of rich well-watered greens, hillsides of darker forest. Rowed potatoes grew between acres of sunflower pastures that were profusions of colours with sprays of other red, blue, white, pink flowers.
From Donaueschingen to Neudingen, past Gutradingen on the other side of the river. On to Geisingen and through the small village of Hintschingen. Several other couples and groups of touring cyclists passed in both directions. Immendingen and then stunning Mohringen with its coloured houses – green, white, blue, pink with accents of black, gold, white and red, cobbled streets, flower boxes of high artful schemes of colour cascading from window ledges. A gravel path led us through a section of the Black Forest. Tuttlingen, the place of the Tuttl people in the long ago past, was larger. A ruined castle on the high hilltop. Cath Rapunzled near a gabled tower. The area was the scene of a great battle in the 30 Years War. Now the town is a world centre for manufacture of medical technology. BMWs, Audis, Mercedes and Renaults cruised the streets outside the market square.
An easy intro day sorting out the finer points of the trip – coffee in the thermos, lunch rolls made at breakfast, locating toilets, waterproofing gear, where to put the passport, getting the bum to make friends with the saddle. 38 km.
Hills and Bells
Another couple of ingens (Nendingen, Fridingen) passed before we climbed away from the river into a small village on a higher terrace. As we cycled along a lane lined with coloured window boxes spilling downwards from ancient houses the spired town clock rang out and led into cascading church chimes. Later again as we passed slowly by a medieval house church bells sounded a timely welcome.
The valley sides steepened and pressed in. Habitation became sparser. White and grey limestone crags towered above our gravel trail which wound beside the river. Through lush forest. Light showers of rain then sunshine. Several times as we photoed and rested we came upon a pair of runners. In a mix of broken English and German they told me of their training for the Berlin Marathon.
At Bueron we left our panniers at the hotel then hill climbed for 5 km away from the valley. Wildenstein Castle looked both impregnable and magical with two moats and built on twin rock outcrops. It had withstood Europe’s darkest periods since 1076.
48 km Top speed downhill 50 kph. 300m hill climb climb Total 86 km
Venison and spinach with wild mushroom cheese sauce MMMMM.
Dark knights and princes
Away from the Benedictine abbey town of Beuron the river narrowed again. Tall limestone pinnacles, towers and cliff faces thrust out of forest. One section was reputed to be an “Eldorado fur kletterers” (climbers). Grassy meadows nestled in the occasional flatter section. Small castles perched precariously on rock outcrops. Robin Hood and Hansel and Gretel could have been glimpsed in the dappled green glens.
A dark knight stood tall, exuded a subtle menace on the other side of the road outside the supermarket. The young man dressed in black, smoked heavily. Piercings on his face and sharp studs on his eyebrows and lips. Tattooed arms. Chatting to his mate they periodically broke into quiet song together in time with the heavy metal music thumping from a small rechargeable boom box in the centre of his handlebars. His mudguards were lined with small sharp points. Studded brown leather hand guards added the only relief from black and silver. Small mirrors were grasped aloft by metal scythe like fingers. Thick chunky tyres. Like an antihero in a Ramstein music video I expected him to don a medieval metal armoured helmet before he pedalled off.
Visible from anywhere in the town of Singmaringin is the Schloss (castle). It is a magical structure of battlements, ramparts, arches and all the trappings belonging in fairy tales. Here the structure is real. The modern day prince still lives in his private palace adjoining. I shook my head in wonderment that we could drink coffee under a tower that reached skyward above and into my imagination of the stories of princesses, battles, allegiances, serfdom, of feasts and famines and sieges. Like Disneyland’s “tall tales and true from the legendary past”.
48 km. Rear end not so sore today. There was a steady stream of cyclists throughout the day, nearly all German we surmised. Mostly the locals seem civil and all say “Guten Morgen” as they pass but they don’t appear particularly friendly – a little dour perhaps so far. One young couple pulled a home-made wooden cart with wheelbarrow wheels and a shade frame that looked like a small coracle on wheels. Inside was a baby and some of their gear. Many oldies, tubbies and lazies (we looked down our noses at them!) were on electric bikes that cruised past and did the hills easily. Even small inclines brought us into the lowest gears with our luggage on board. My shoulders ached and Cath’s legs felt heavy from the previous day’s optional hill climb.
Long day on the saddle
66 km. 8.45am – 5.15pm. Further than we’d ever ridden in one day, with luggage, to get to our prebooked accommodation. 30+ degree heat. German summer had arrived late. We drank lots.
A detour up onto the plateau required a walk pushing the heavy bikes past wild apple trees. Over gently rolling country trucks passed by. The traffic, when we were on the roads, was very bike aware and courteous. One large truck followed us very patiently up a steep winding hill without pushing to overtake. A large scale open air museum exhibited evidence and a partial recreation of an Iron Age (500 BC) village – the most significant site of its type in Europe. Adjacent to the Danube the archeologists had found items from all over Europe and beyond. These Celts had built an outstanding civilisation in a place surrounded by tilled fields and wild forests, in a commanding position with views out to the distant snow-capped alps on the southern horizon.
Down on the fairly flat lands we cycled through many more fields of corn. This is used in the production of biofuels and is by far the most common and extensive cropping of the rich fertile soils of the floodplain. Villages and towns each with an amazing church and half timbered houses. Every single one of them could be world heritage listed.
Mid afternoon, and still with a long way to go, we began losing it with each other. Hot, tired, sore, too many uphills. Should have carried some extra food. A welcome village disappointingly only has a beer garden. …………………………….. Then we rounded a corner in the next village to find a bakerei! Kaffee, tea, cheesecake and a pastry called “plunder” made me feel like a jocular pirate. Good cheer restored we pushed on again. Finally we reached Mengen where on the outskirts Cath noticed what could have been our first refugee establishment, groups of Arab looking kids playing in an open yard in a low cost housing area. At our guesthouse “Rose” we had the medieval loft 3 narrow flights of stairs up with small windows onto the roofscape of the old town. We collapsed on the bed, then later showered, washed our cycling clothes and slowly resurfaced.
200km total for the trek. The trail had become more heavily used and with more facilities such as rest places and even a cycle oasis with a drinking water fountain at the top of a steep rise.
On an alternative side trip route for the day we made our way beside the Blau River which was a tributary to our Danube. Small limestone crags reappeared which rose out of the thick forest at the edge of the valley. A closed off cave entrance with prehistoric archaeological heritage stimulated visions of cavemen with spears fighting off wooly mammoths. Crystal clear water flowed out of the “Blue Pool”. In a hollow in the hillside the depths of the water and the geology made the water a deep blue. Green water weeds lined the sides of the pool and tall beech trees glowed an iridescent green in contrast. At one side stood an ancient waterwheel and beyond that a rich church and abbey. I wondered at the number of religious shrines that underlay the church of modern (the last 1000 years) times. Often pagans of the past placed great value in natural springs and built shrines in the grottos. These became places of worship as successive peoples took over the regions through millennia and finally fell into Christian hands. The place did have an underlying beauty and life giving atmosphere. Apparently the pool is one of two entrances to a vast underground cave system that remains not fully explored due to the extensive cave diving necessary to access the inner most catacombs.
In Ulm, our first large city, we woke to the carolling bells of the cathedral. It’s spire of laced stonework is the tallest in the world – 161 m.
47km. Top speed 52 kph (it’s fun to be a hoon) One puncture repair on Cath’s bike first thing in the morning. 30 degrees – the summer heat continued.
The rich soil of the flood plain and hinterland all seemed to be covered in corn fields. Very occasionally we spied out a tiny potato patch and some private strips of land with apple trees. The corn is fed into biogas collectors each day. The decomposition produces methane which is converted to heat which then generates electricity. Apparently this biogas is heavily subsidised as a move towards sustainable energy. Angela Merkel wants to phase out the country’s 17 nuclear reactors in the early 2020s. As we cycled past the cooling towers of a nuclear power plant I wondered about how long all this prime agricultural land can keep producing a mono crop without running out of nutrients. And I wondered about what the farmers are doing now – did they sell out to the biogas producers? And what of food sustainability?
We got out the thermos and had tea, jam rolls and bananas at the Autobahnsee (large pond near the big highway).
Aspects of the Germanic psyche slowly surfaced. The general dourness was sometimes broken by a more friendly face, a smiling hello and a willingness to chatterbox. The set of many of the faces of the German cyclists is one of life being lived under some duress. Is there perhaps an inter-generational inheritance of guilt about the wars and also the difficulties of reparations after each one. I noticed that the animated conversation appeared to be proportional to the amount of beer consumed. Nearly every night we were woken by late night revelers who made no efforts to dampen their volume to lessen their impact on the rest of the community who were long in bed. And many young people made statements driving by with bass pumping the atmosphere from their car stereos. These things were noticeable because they were outside what I sensed might be the general demeanor of the populace.
Every town we passed through had its historic central area, arched entries built in the 10th century, clock towers from the 14th etc. Tucked away in a modern suburb near this town were the ruins of a roman temple.
59 km. 312 overall. Day 6 of the cycle tour. The heat continued – mid 30s. Overnight at Dillingen, Cath had more pork and I went vego.
Field after field after field of corn began to grow tiresome. A few wind turbines appeared. There is a surprising lack of public toilets on this internationally renowned cycling route. We learned that in the larger towns the Rathaus (town hall/admin building) usually had a WC. Otherwise it was essential to make use of the regular sections of forest along the way.
After 37 km we called a rest afternoon in a town of amazing history that had been completely rebuilt and restored after a total hammering by bombers in WW2. On the outskirts of town was the Airbus helicopter factory which I supposed was built on the site of an aircraft factory operational during the war and was perhaps the reason for the heavy bombing.
Go the Catholics! At the cathedral next to the abbey every section was covered with frescos or enclosed alters and sculptures covered in gold. Wealth oozed from the place and overwhelmed. One side altar contained a full skeleton of a saint on show behind a glass partition who wore a gold crown. At the other end under the massive choir stall and huge organ pipes was the grave of a woman who had been beheaded by her husband count who knew she was innocent of whatever she was accused of, in the 1200s!
Umleitung (detour) through the forest
A farmer passing in a tractor gesticulated wildly in a direction different to the flat short way round the river to the next town. At the next intersection the signs had been altered and directed us gently uphill, then steeper and steeper until finally we had to walk. Pushing the heavily loaded bikes uphill was hard work. Into a forest on a gravel track. Already tired from the heat, another day over 30 degrees. Everyone hates electric bikes – two cruised past up the steepest section. Light through verdant green foliage. Blessed shade. Up and up. Eventually it flattened out and we were able to mount up again. Several kilometres extra.
We called it quits again at lunchtime after 40 kilometres. We were actually doing pretty well considering the heat. It was like cycle touring in Aussie summer. A palace, a delightful marketplace, another hugely ornate cathedral, frescos of great antiquity.
394 km overall. On a long downhill all I can manage is 50 kph.
Out of commission
Another seriously hot day was forecast so we had arranged a short day – 37km (in the guidebook). We pedaled in the morning cool into forest and farm land. A few crops of spuds and cauliflower offered a little variation and even a tractor driven by a young woman. A superb hunting palace stood grandly in a large field in the woods with an imposing gateway and pepper pot towers on each corner. It was all closed up unfortunately.
We sojourned in Ingolstadt, a delightful town of very old buildings with coloured front facades. Dramatic munsters (cathedrals) and a large Rathaus, a large castle that held the Bavarian army museum. Ice cream parlours were packed. For several slow hours we relaxed, ate lunch and cruised around the cobbled streets linking up patches of shade.
Late in the afternoon we continued along the side of the Danube. Sometimes on the dyke that held back the water in the locks, sometimes through the shady, cooler forest. Near our destination was a massive power plant. It was an enormous installation of buildings, towering chimneys and pipes feeding from the river. It was a gas and oil plant built in 2007 to supply peak load power – 400,000 euros – and then decommissioned in 20016 as it became uneconomic to run in the face of the government’s push towards renewables. It seemed like a huge waste of resources and a memorial to rapid change. Our guesthouse, in a small and incredibly historic town nearby, was newly renovated, probably to cater for all the workers at the power plant.
Actual distance 48 km.
Hop bushes twined tall in fields of rows. Groups of men in old wooden sheds raked over the foliage. Then at Weltenburg Abbey hordes of tourists sat in the huge Biergarten in the Abbey square and ate and drank the famous beer brewed by the monks. On the side of the square a church appeared only middle sized and a little plain on the outside. However on the inside it was plastered with frescos, gilt, sculptures and a large statue of St George slaying the dragon and rescuing some princess. The wealth was palpable and overpowering. The Abbey was situated on a bend of the river.
Below the Abbey the river narrowed and gained momentum. It wound through wonderful forest, swirled past tall limestone cliffs. This was one of the most significant nature reserves on the length of the river and reputed to be one of the most beautiful. We boated the 6 km gorge downstream.
40 km cycling and 6 km in the boat. My bum sore has improved and Cath’s allergy/sunburn on her thighs began settling down. We rode in heavy rain for the first time which was a welcome break from the heat. Luggage stayed dry. All of Cath’s ALDI gear was working a treat – merino top, panniers, helmet, sox, cycling shorts.
Regensburg – city of churches
40km. In a cool green park with a man-made stream we celebrated 500 km with a cuppa. It felt like quite an achievement for us who had not done more than a day’s cycling of up to 45 km prior to the trip. Now we had peeled off 11 days in a row, some shorter than planned due to the hot weather, but still with a fairly good effort each day. The cycling had been varied with navigation, gravel, cobble stones, small roads, a couple of busy roads and lots of paved cycle path.
We found our Airbnb apartment, a small room in a medieval building in the old town, low door, bathroom in a small dungeon, quiet and cool. With a purple feature wall, purple curtains and white bed head, romantic. Perfect for a two night stay with a rest day. Bliss to go to the supermarket and buy lots of salad and fruit and fresh food we could prepare ourselves. A sleep in and time to plan out some logistics for a break in Berlin while Cath does a course took up a morning.
I found out that Regensburg had not been badly damaged in the war. There was one big bombing campaign to wipe out a Messerschmitt fighter plane factory but the city had escaped the worst. The whole old town had been UNESCO heritage listed. There is practically a thousand year old church on every corner, narrow lanes lead to open squares. Our first experience with non-German tourists consisted of groups of aged Americans and younger Asians tailing flag waving guides. Cycle tourists like us wove in between the walking crowds and umbrellaed drinkers in open air cafes. The occasional car and motorbike tried to get through but mainly the place was pleasantly dominated by pedestrians. A lavish palace of centuries antiquity was built by a family who invented the postal service from the 1500s and later were granted princehoods. The palace was still lived in by the descended current prince and princess who have entertained Mick Jagger, Elton John, Charles and Lady Di just as in the old days the renowned artists and aristocracy would have been guests. I guess the modern equivalent would be Bill Gates and Steve Jobs – do they have places I wondered?
Feel like a cyclist
The rest day did wonders. Legs felt fresh. In cool weather we cruised across the country. Fields. Beside the river dyke. Past small villages and palaces. Lots of churches. Just enjoyed the motion and changing landscape. I had a soundtrack of German popular music and played it on my phone. It gave a rhythm to our pumping legs.
Early afternoon, as the heat built, we rode into Staubing for a break. Just when you start to think you might’ve seen all the small German towns you need to see a magical new place unfolds. The Main Street was shut to cars and was buzzing with people. Rowed on each side were variously coloured facaded buildings and a huge town clock tower stood as the centre piece proudly crowned with four green turrets. The tower had been celebrated a few days prior in a big festival for its 700th birthday and wore a big pink ribbon and bow.
On our end of day stretch Rammstein heavy metal boomed from my phone at full volume. 80 km for the day. Felt pretty straight forward.
Up till this point our accommodation had been in hotels, guest houses and pensions, which were like small guest houses. As we had wanted to push out the distance and didn’t quite know where we would get to we didn’t prebook. In a small village at the end of our day we happened on a zimmer frei, a room for rent, in a private house. This one was full of local workers but the proprietor took us to another further into the village. The room and place were excellent and I had fun communicating in my limited but expanding German. Normally for dinner you wander down to the local biergarten but the only one nearby was closed. The man who ran the house took us to another biergarten in his car. A small mercedes with plush black leather seats. As he drove we talked brokenly about mercedes, diesels and car prices in a few shared words and gestures. He sped up and seemed to get a little excited when I noticed the manual overdrive on his automatic transmission. At too high a speed he nearly ran off the road. The car was very fast and capable but the roads were narrow and winding through corn fields. Like James Bond he powered us on to dinner. Maybe it was the two weeks on bikes that made us grip the seats.
At dinner our “mein host” was a jolly pirate of a fellow who had lived at the guesthouse with biergarten all his life. Deep fried schnitzel and chips was the only thing on the menu. Ugh more Bavarian food. When we questioned mein host about the tall poles hung with cultural symbols instead of explaining them as a type of living maypole which we found out later he demonstrated his coloured light system that hung from the pole which he lit up like his own “Las Vegas” to direct people to his place after dark. We chatted with a Dutch cyclist about cycling, our home countries and Germany. His take was that very few people in Germany spoke English, contrary to many other countries.
The ride home was another hair raising drive.
I contemplated later the lack of German people who spoke English in our experience and the very small number of people from Australia who we knew that had travelled to Germany. Both of our fathers had fought in WW2. It was the parents of the people we met and our parents’ generation who had suffered that terrible war. My childhood was filled with movies and TV stories about fighting the bad guy nazis – Dam Busters, Battle of Brittain and Hogan’s Heroes. Maybe it was all still too close. I had heard that up until at least 15 years ago German kids did not even learn about the war in school history. I wondered whether Angela Merkl’s open door to refugees from Syria was an unconscious atonement for the country’s previous nazi history.
Stage 1 complete!
Country lanes, a few busy roads, paved cycle paths, gravel tracks on the top of the river dyke. Sightings or our first luxury cruise boats and also industrial barges using the river. We crossed an autobahn on a narrow bridge that shook and vibrated as cars, motorcycles and trucks sped endlessly underneath in a noise assault. While filming the strong current in the Danube My iPhone fell in the water. Ouch.
After an expected 60 km straightforward day from the guidebook stretched out to 75 and the afternoon heat built up we finally crossed over the lock system and rolled into Passau. 685km and stage 1 completed felt terrific. Yay! The journey, our bikes and gear, our bodies and our togetherness had been rolling along really well. Gasthaus Golden Sonne had building antiquity from 600 AD and had been taking in guests for 800 years. Our room was a small cell on the second floor. Comfortable, cosy, well appointed, cheap and medieval. Passau was a town on the confluence of three rivers full of narrow lanes and wonderful buildings. Last year, in 2015, at this time 2000 Syrian refugees had swelled its streets every day. There was no sign of this influx observable to us.
The city where three rivers join together into the Danube, Inn and Ils. Saturn, the mobile phone shop in a mall, sent us off to Funky Land, who passed us on to Krystl Quik. The phone’s innards showed no sign of water or corrosion and fired up properly. Fingers crossed.
The cathedral boasts the biggest organ in the world – five interlinked seperate organs in different parts of the enormous church with over 2000 pipes. In the half hour concert Bach belted out then two other composer’s pieces filled the space and our hearts with the tenderest melodies and drama filled crescendos. It seemed to me one rare time when the place, the music, the architecture, the sculpture and the art all came together in a coherent meaningful whole. All the other churches we had seen paled into insignificant self-agrandisement and over the top rococo wealth. Even this one was lined outside with “indulgences” (stone memorials) that were paid for by rich people centuries ago to have their bodies buried within the church and secure themselves a place in heaven.
The day was a welcome break from cycling. On climbing up flights of stairs to the castle that perched high above the city we both found our legs still packed full of lactic acid which made them feel like lead.
52 Adventures. That's the aim. In the year from February 2015 and maybe more. Like any real adventure the outcome is unknown. The journey, the comrades, the solitude, the challenges, the special places are what matters. And this is the record – writing, images and video. Enjoy.