Wednesday, September 17, 2008

It's all over - Back home again in Caithness 16/09/08

In my previous posting I rode from Fremantle to Waikiki, where my hosts for the final weekend live. I stayed with Andrew and Joanne Hooker, who are very keen bicycle tourers and as it turned out, great hosts. Have a look at their very readable website which describes their epic cycling adventures on recumbents. My tour ended on a high note thanks to their great warmth, friendliness, practical help and not least Joanne's wonderful and wonderfully-frequent cooking, which certainly allows for a touring cyclists' predictably-large appetite.

Whilst I've met hundreds of very friendly and supportive Australians on my travels here, nothing beats exchanges between like-minded long-distance cyclists like ourselves, who have both endured occasional severe hardships whilst experiencing great joy in what we do, and I don't think I've ever talked quite so close to exhaustion as all this weekend. I learnt an awful lot from Andrew and Joanne that will help frame any future expeditions I might undertake (and I very well might!!). Apart from the chat I also enjoyed watching their video footage of their most recent ride from Alaska down to the Carribean coast, which inspired more discussion. I also got a shot on Andrew's recumbent up and down the street, and must say they are very comfortable and practical in some ways, but on the whole I think I still prefer an 'upright' for various reasons.
Andrew drove me to the nearest cycle shop to pick up a cardboard bike box, and on the Saturday afternoon we broke the bike down and packed the bits in the box. It was quite a squeeze just like on the way out here, and we made sure that any sharp bits sticking towards the sides of the box - such as the hub ends - were reinforced so as not to stick through. Andrew also made some dowels to fit between the fork and drop-outs to prevent bending and damage. I still had too much stuff to pack as it turned out, and even though I discarded some of the less-wanted items and packed my rucksack (hand baggage) to the hilt, it still left the box weighing nearly 30kg. I decided to wing it rather than discard more - I could perhaps do this at the airport if necessary. The 32l rucksack fairly swallowed up a lot of stuff but weighed nearly 10kg (7kg only allowed) - I'll try and wing that too.
Despite wanting to extend my stay at mein hosts after a wonderful and stimulating weekend, they kindly drove me and the baggage to Perth airport after dinner on Sunday, in good time before my flight to London. The lady at the check-out desk was very helpful, but eventually confirmed that I would have to both pay $110 for having rebooked the flight some time back (I knew about this but was a little annoyed because the online booking system had not allowed booking of the return flight in one years time) AND for any excess baggage over 25kg i.e. nearly 5kg at $80/kg - ouch! However she pointed out that I could try and transfer some items from hold to hand baggage, which I went away and tried to do. However whilst I was pondering how to 'lose' a few kg the very friendly airline supervisor came over and kind of hinted that if I just removed 1kg from the (29.5kg) bike box this would be OK, and having done this I was issued with boarding card - YESS! Actually, I later observed that some of the more obese passengers must have weighed a good 30kg more than me without penalty.....but hey, I don't wanna be negative!
My flight left on time and after a quite pleasant and well-fed 7 hours we touched down in Hong Kong, where after only 2 hours wait (and a frustrated trying in vain to get the Dell Axim PDA to pick up the free WiFi broadband) the London flight left. Both flights arrived bang on time and I managed to get a few hours shallow sleep on each leg. I can really recommend Cathay Pacific - this is the second time I've flown to Oz with them and it has been hassle-free, punctual and the cabin service is excellent.
Getting from Heathrow to Euston Station was a bit of a nightmare. Whilst the rucksack was easy to carry on my back, obviously the near-30kg box was not liftable, big and awkward. From the carousel to the train was OK since I had the box on a luggage trolley, and as the underground train was quiet at the start of the line I had no problem dragging the box into the carriage, albeit that it was kind of blocking the way a bit. I had to change trains at Green Park for the Victoria line to Euston and by the time we'd reached the former the train was heaving in the peak of the Monday rush-hour, and I had to literally and somewhat rudely push through the crowd to get the box out. People didn't seem to understand that this was awkward to do and many didn't move, seemingly blanking me out. Once on the platform I had to push the box along the (thankfully) slippery floor for 200m, then another 300m along a corridor leading to the other platform. As I neared the Victoria Line a flight of some 30 steps loomed ahead of me, but mercifully a young man eventually took pity on me and gave me a hand (most folk again just looked the other way). The second train soon arrived and I had to literally lunge with the box onto the train to overcome the lack of willingness to let me get on first by all those around me (what's wrong with these people??). Same again, it was terrible trying to get off with everyone packed like sardines, and people being so grumpy about it (I now know why I hate living in a city). Lastly, I had to push for another 500m and up 3 escalators (which was fun looking at people's faces!) before finally arriving in the teeming Euston Station concourse. Next time I swear I will do this differently; I'm getting too old for all that hassle!
I now had 3 hours to wait for the night sleeper so took my time to choose from the many eating places what to have for dinner. There are croissant, pie, burger, fish and chips, sandwich and pastie stalls (to mention but a few) with delicious-looking (and inexpensive) fare displayed, and I finally plumped for a chicken salad baguette and steak and stout Cornish pastie, which (the latter) was particularly and tastily awesome. Around 2045 the nightly sleeper was ready for boarding - I had just booked a reclining seat (£31 single to Inverness) as I have trouble sleeping in a berth. As it turned out there were plenty of spare seats and I grabbed two together which allowed me to lie down, somewhat uncomfortably, but enough to allow me to sleep most of the way to Edinburgh Waverley. There was a buffet car next door which stayed open all night, and I was amazed to only have to pay £1 for coffee; prices must have been reduced since the last time when I payed over £2 as I recall. The train arrived in Inverness at 0840, some 20 minutes late, and pretty soon I was with Lyn and a lovely warm reunion.
We did a little shopping and ate a full Scottish breakfast at Morrison's supermarket in Alness and arrived at Lyn's home, where I will stay for a while, by 1300. I was as expected feeling very weary and stiff after this long journey and was happy to just lay back and relax. I have 2 weeks before starting back at work so plenty of time to recover and brace myslef for the 'real world' again.
Next morning a reporter from the local paper, the John O'Groat's Journal, phoned to ask a few questions about the trip and how I felt now, and I have to say it was nice to remember and reflect in response to questions about it. No doubt that I will miss the enjoyment and freedom of travelling, but I'm sure one day I will do something like this again. I would like to do it with Lyn if she feels up to it; I'll have to discreetly encourage her.....whilst I quite like travelling alone it is nice to share what you see with another, a loved one...

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Freemantle to Waikiki

Fri 11th September 2008
Cloudy, rain, 21 deg C

After a slow breakfast I took down the tent after placing all my stuff on a covered table ready for sorting. It had rained a little in the night and I didn’t want anything getting wet this morning. I packed a cardboard box with those things I’d decided to send home in a parcel, which is much cheaper than paying excess baggage charges. I’d chosen the size of box very well and everything fitted in perfectly; mostly camping and cooking gear plus the tent. I had thought I might dump the latter because it’s had a hard life, but I figure I can effect some repairs when I get home so as to give it another lease of life. It has served me very well Iguess, justifying it’s $530 price tag.
I loaded up the bike for the last time and tied the box on top of the rear rack and trundled down to Freo and the Pack and Send shop. Cost of shipment was $272 (£136) airfreight, and it should be home soon after me.
With lightened load I set off to Andrew and Joanne’s place in Waikiki, Rockingham, some 35km south. It was a pretty foul day with regular squalls of blustery rain battering into me from the SW, i.e. to the front or on the right side, and quite cold except when the sun made it out for a few minutes at a time. The highway down to here was pretty busy but there’s a reasonable shoulder most of the way.
Andrew and Joanne cycled around Australia in 2003 and wrote a book about the experience, which I bought and have found very useful indeed - check out their website at for info about all their travels and the book. We had a lovely evening discussing our respective rides and comparing notes. It’s odd that we have camped almost in the same spots on occasions. It’s so enjoyable being with such like-minded people.

DAY 5 off in Freemantle

Thurs 10th September 2008
Cloudy, rain, 21 deg C

A lazy kind of day apart from sorting stuff and organising my exit; wandering around Freo and feeding my face. The caravan park is a very friendly place, and there are quite a few folk staying here for several days like myself which is good; we've got to know each other quite well. The ride has attracted a lot of interest, yet now that it’s over I find that it isn’t in my mind very much at all; I can’t explain that. When I do think about it I can only remember the good things and the hard or unhappy moments seem lost. I do think though that I would like to do another big ride someday, perhaps in a few years.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

DAY 4 off in Rottnest Island

Weds 10th September 2008
Sunny, 21 deg C

I got down to the ferry terminal too early for the 0930 ferry since my watch was 15 minutes fast for some reason - good job it wasn’t the other way around. The boat gets accross to Rotto in 25 minutes and goes very quickly, fairy skimming over some big waves; I think it’s probably a hovercraft.

On arrival at the main (only) settlement on Rotto it was drizzling lightly, and felt very cool - I didn’t fancy riding the 20 or 30km around the island cold and damp - but it cleared a bit so off I went, and in fact although it was overcast for a few hours it didn’t rain much again.There are virtually no vehicles allowed on the island other than for repairs and maintenance, and it was bliss not to see any at all, all day, other than the tour bus once every half hour. Many peope hire or take their own bikes, and it’s very safe cycling. I bought a few snacks at the well-stocked bakery and watched the Quokkas (small rat-like marsupials common to Rottnest) bumming food off the punters. One was feretting around in a mothers bag which was stashed under her toddler’s trolly but she didn’t seem bothered; weird. I didn’t see any out ‘in the wild’ but I’m sure they’re there somewhere.

The ride around was a delight, with a succsession of little white sandy beaches appearing between weirdly-shaped rocky little limestone cliffs, and I think I must have stopped to have a look at all of them. The sea was a beautiful shade of blue, especially once the sun came out at around 1300, and with the deserted white beaches, very photogenic. The road undulates over the sand dune system as usual, but there are no difficult hills. The road is the usual double lane, just for the buses I guess.

I cycled around 35km around the little island. I enjoyed Rottnest very much, and given good weather I wouldn’t have any trouble spending a few days here. I’m sure it’s very much busier in the summer though, which might detract from it’s appeal, for me at least.

It rained some more in the evening and felt very cold to me, so lots of layers on again.

DAY 3 off in Fremantle

Tues 9th September 2008
Sunny, 21 deg C

Didn’t do too much today apart from wander around Fremantle and sit around in the warm sunshine - gather ye rosebuds whilst ye may - I’ll be back in the UK this time next week!
In the morning I visited the WA Maritime Museum, a huge modernistic building on the harbour front; free admission. There is a lot to see including plenty about the history of boats and ships in this area starting way back with the first presumed visitors before European settlement, including how they were built out of whatever materials were to hand. Among the boat exhibits are examples that have made history by winning major races or sailing around the world single handed, as well as local ferries and such that were retired here after long service. I hadn’t fully appreciated the deep and long connection between boats and Fremantle, although it’s clearly evident from the thousands of yachts moored around here that it’s hugely popular as a berth. The wind here too lends itself to sailing with the reliable ‘Fremantle Doctor’ - a persistent and fresh SW/W wind that also cools the place down during the hot summer.
I had a disappointing lunch at the Pure and Natural cafe in the mall; the rolls looked delicious in the counter but when it finally arrived it had been utterly flattened in the toaster, far beyond the normal gentle searing. And the latte was horrible - without any foam, just white insipid liquid which went straight back for a refund. I should have taken the roll back too but suffered it through. This is very unusual in my experience in Oz where the quality of the food (well, away from some roadhouses) has been very good. It had been clear that the woman serving me didn’t know what to do; she was fiddling about with the coffee for ages.
I corrected the error with a proper latte from around the corner along with some very nice carrot cake, so all’s well that ends well lol. I also checked out where to get the ferry over to Rottnest Island, and finished up booking for tomorrow. Later on I wandered up the Swan River again, finding even more little jetties and places I hadn’t seen the other day. This is a great p-lace to explore by bicycle.
After a leisurely beer at a riverside pub with my new novel (Jessica by Austraian author Bryce Courtenay - a great read) it started a bit cooler so I started to head home. I had another wander around the nicely restored fishing harbour and found a Baskin-Robbins ice cream place - how did I miss that? Actually, although I had to have a 2-scoop sundae for old times sake it didn’t go down as well as at Darwin where it was much hotter. It’s the same with iced coffee too - after craving for all those hot months, they just don’t have the same appeal now that it’s coolish. It’s warm enough between say 10 and 4, but outside these times I’ve had to add a layer of clothing or two. It’s often a relief to get into my sleeping bag at night.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

DAY 2 off in Fremantle / Perth

Mon 8th September 2008
Sunny, 20 deg C

Spent the morning organising my departure - particularly, the most cost-effective way of getting my excess baggage home. I only have a 20kg allowance and the bike weighs around 19, plus I have another 20kg or so of stuff. I’ll probably risk getting away with 25kg in the bike box, and send a 10kg parcel back, leaving around 7kg hand luggage - the maximum allowed. It will cost about $240 (£120) for the parcel with a local shipping company, who will also supply a customs declaration form C4 which will hopefully avoid me paying import duty and VAT on stuff that I brought with me - otherwise I would get clobbered for this again on goods which will be worth around £500.I also bought a new Deuter rucksack - 32 litre capacity which I was informed is the maximum size allowed as hand luggage, so I can make full use of that 7kg allowance. It was $180 (£90) but I will be able to use it once home too. The last rucksack I had was a Deuter too, and it lasted for many years - I finally threw it out at Edith Falls when the zip gave up the ghost.

I’ve also got the telephone nos. of a couple of bike shops near to where my hosts for next weekend, Andrew and Joanne, stay, so I can hopefully collect a box on Friday and pack the bike over the weekend. I shall make up the 10kg box by Friday and drop it off at the shipping company here at Freo before leaving for there’s.

After all that I had a good lunch and spent the afternoon sightseeing around Freo. It is a very pleasant and somewhat Bohemian town with lots of character; old buildings nicely restored, and plenty to see and do, and it’s easy to get around on the cycleways. There are some interesting craft shops which I had a good browse around, managing to get some presents at last; things that don’t take much space or weight up. Cafes abound, and there must be a hundred at least. I also did some succesful haggling and got 10% discount lol.

A disabled guy, Scott, in a wheelchair, stopped me to comment on my not wearing a helmet, and I listened to how he was hit by a car as a pedestrian and brain-damaged. He was concerned that the same might happen to me, and I had to agree he was probably right - I have worn a helmet religiously on this tour, but didn’t bother today for just a short while. I will probably wear one all the time back home in future now that I’m used to it.

The rest of the day was spent just relaxing and cycling along the river, out on the breakwater etc. and anothet sociable evening in the campers kitchen.

DAY 1 off in Fremantle / Perth

Sun 7th September 2008
Sunny, 21 deg C

A much more peacefu night at this CP thanfully, and a lie-in until the tent warmed up i.e. well after 8. I cycled down to Fremantle station and only had to wait a few minutes for a train. It’s easy peasy to take your bike on the train; there are a couple of bays in every carriage where it fits in nicey without flopping around. There were plenty of people with bikes on the train, and I got chatting to a guy with his 2 kids who cycled part of the Munda Biddi 500km trail, which was interesting - I had thought about doing some of this.
I had sussed from my Perth bicycle lanes map that it woud be simpler to get to King’s Park by getting off at the penultimate station, Perth West, and from here there’s a bicycle lane than goes most of the way to the park. It’s less than 2km, but up a steep hill, however the height affords a great view of Perth city centre and the Swan River. It was a perfect sunny day and so good for snapping piccies.
Kings Park was very busy, and this is Father’s Day in Oz so there were plenty of folk out for the day, and lots of dads with new jocks and socks lol. I spotted a familiar tree - the huge Boab that passed me on the road to Kununura a few weeks ago, stopping all the traffic on the way. I think it was ‘available’ as it had to be removed to make way for a road (in Darwin?), so the King’s Park authorities snapped it up, and presumably paid heavily for the 2000km journey with 1 police and 2 other escorts. Hopefully it will survive the colder and damper climate down here. The birds in the park are prolific and diverse, and I heard plenty of calls that I didn’t recognise. I may have another day here this week when it’s quiter and try and identify some of them.
Soon after a hot dog and muffin and latte lunch the sound of Irish music wafted across the park, and I homed in on a 3-piece band playing one of my favourite songs - Danny Boy. They made a very good and passionate job of it, and caused a tear in my eye; beautiful. I was hooked after that, and they played 3 sessions over the afternoon sprinkled with many Irish classics; they gave a great, modern rendition of Molly Malone.
During the afternoon I met a couple who were keen cyclists, and we had a long exchange about touring by bicycle. The lady (forgot names as usual) said she has always wanted to cycle around Oz, so I gave her my card with the website details on. She had a bad accident last week whilst mountain biking and her arm was in a sling, but she has no intention of stopping cycling; she gets such a buzz from it. If they read this please remind me of your names and my apologies for forgetting! It all capped a very nice day for me.
Train ‘home’, cool evening, put more clothes on, cooked dinner of pasta and tuna (what else), sociable evening with 3 young Italian tourists. Good day...