Wednesday, December 21, 2016

You're going to do what?! Meeting crazy people in outback Australia.

There are some people you meet and the more you talk to them the more your respect for them deepens. Others are quite the opposite and you wonder when they'll become entries for the Darwin Awards - short-lived and notable for doing something stupid, and entirely preventable.

Mary was one of the former. 

We were enjoying the 8km hike along part of the Heysen Trail out of Koolaman Campground in the Brachina Gorge, Flinders Ranges, SA. 

We'd just walked up the Yuluna Creek stopping frequently to gaze awestruck at the ancient seabed .... 

.... and wonder at the incredible force that it must take to push huge trees into a woven mass in a riverbed.
It was a warmish day and we paused to ponder whether to go on to the Bendowta Hut ruins or not, when a lone woman strode up with a "cooeee" and began chatting with us. 

She was visiting family from NZ and each time she visits, she does a couple of sections of the Heysen Trail (at 1200Km doing it in sections is sensible!).

As usual, first glances assess a person far quicker than words ever can: with Mary it went along the lines of: Not a threat. Alone. Small pack. Doesn't seem to have much water. Snakes are quite active. Hope she's got a good first aid kit. Is there room in her pack for a personal location beacon? Satellite phone? Does she have food in case she gets stuck out here?

And the more we chatted, the more we realised that not only was she a hugely experienced hiker, she was strong, capable, knew her limits and would do her utmost not to be a danger to herself or others.

We discussed 'worst case scenarios' and plans we have in place in case of emergency. She was a delight to spend time with, that rare combination of someone who is interested to hear what we'd been up to, and happy to share her own entertaining stories.

In contrast, a few days later at Coward Springs, we met an older cyclist from the USA.  

Coward Springs on the Oodnadatta track is a delightful spot to spend a night or two.

There's a bore which has been converted to a spa, shady trees to pitch the tent under, long-drop toilets and a donkey boiler shower. Luxury!

I'd noticed a lone cyclist, leathery skin, elderly, tent pitched to get maximum breeze and shade, little pot and stove ready for dinner and him sitting on a log contemplating who knows what.

Being a relatively friendly soul, who generally likes to be supportive of people travelling alone, and being genuinely interested in where he'd come from and where he was headed to, I said "Hi, good ride?" as I walked past, anticipating a generic "Good. Thanks" in reply and a proper follow up afterwards.

Why? Because there's an unspoken convention when camping, that when someone is headed off to the toilet with bog roll in hand, it's fine to say "Hi, how ya going?" and the reply is along the same lines. Brief! Then civilities done with, it's time to depart.

I hadn't accounted for a loquacious, self absorbed Yank, completely oblivious to toilet roll, direction of travel and purposeful gait.
This is NOT the time to begin a monologue about challenging track conditions, government ineptitude, previous outback tracks conquered and asking if it's possible to buy supplies at William Creek. Sheesh. So much talk. So much grumbling. So much self.

For what it's worth, imo, you don't conquer a track. You might conquer your own fears, but a track? You research and prepare for expected and unexpected conditions, know your limits and the limits of your equipment and overcome obstacles as they arise. But overall, you prepare as best as humanly possible, including for worst case scenarios: 

What will I do if my bike breaks down in the middle of nowhere and no vehicles come past for a day? Two days? Do I have enough food and water to survive? How about shelter? Do people know where I am and when I'm expected at the next town? How will I contact people if I'm injured? 

Then he then began moaning about the general lack of phone reception. Outback. On the Oodnadatta Track. More or less in the middle of nowhere. With very few people. Who would have guessed that there wouldn't be a whole lot of mobile phone towers?!

He'd apparently rocked up expecting city quality mobile phone reception so he could research the next town from the previous one. Not smart. And because there was no reception to access the internet, he was unable to check the possibility of restocking his extremely depleted food supplies (which are kind of vital!) at William Creek. That's something I'd have expected a solo, long distance, remote area cyclist to have researched thoroughly before leaving home.

Prior to speaking with listening to him I'd been impressed with his apparent dedication and willingness to ride on the long, dusty, corrugated road, miles from anywhere. 
I now reassessed. He'll be lucky to survive. He hasn't done his homework. He doesn't have enough food to complete the next stages of the track up to Marla (likely to be another 3 or so days of riding) and is botting* food from other campers. It's hot (43+C or nearly 110F) and he openly states he's struggling. Really, really struggling. This is not good.

Next morning, we expected him to be gone at first light, but he had a good old sleep-in and started the 70km ride to William Creek well after the cool of dawn. The sun was already blazing, and it was in the mid 30s in the shade when he wobbled slowly out of the camp site. 

We'd had a lazy start and expected to see him hitching a lift along the track, however when we came across him he was making a slow meandering path on the right hand side of the track, bare chested, wearing ski goggles (to prevent flies exploring his eyes) and with a bit of fabric acting as a hat. I gave him points for cycling on the right. It meant he could easily see if there were oncoming vehicles and he wasn't in the dust of the cars coming from behind.

The scenery is striking, with mound springs dotted along the length of the Oodnadatta Track. It was this source of water which enabled the Aboriginals to make their way through this region for many, many thousands of years.

We stopped and sweltered our way around the well signposted Strangeways Siding ruins, drove out to ABC and Halligan Bay on Lake Eyre and came across the cyclist again at the William Creek Hotel late that afternoon. 

He had a group of people gathered around him at the bar, and was repeating the complaining soliloquy I'd heard. It sounded like he'd said it so often he was word perfect.  When he saw us he broke off to state "It beat me, the Oodnadatta beat me. I'm over it. I can't buy supplies and they're going to arrange a lift to Coober Pedy."

People die out here.  Cycling at the beginning of summer, through the wind and searing heat, where there's no shade, no water and few vehicles, takes a special sort of person. A well prepared one who's researched and thought through the implications of problems. Someone with a back up plan, who knows which places have food, potable water, and transport if needed. At Coward Springs there weren't many campers, and those of us who were concerned for the cyclist's welfare were in no position to assist with transporting him, his bike and gear. Whilst he was clearly extremely fit and physically strong, he wasn't in a good mental space and had apparently done little research on the reality of cycling the Oodnadatta Track or having any plan for being unable to complete the ride mid way through, other than relying on the good will of locals or passers by. 

Things can go pearshaped when you've prepared well, but wilful ignorance and putting yourself or others at risk rarely goes down well.
Near William Creek.
A great spot to reflect on life.

*Aussie slang meaning a scrounger. 


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