By Kat Woods
You would think that cycling 'around' Australia would mean quite literally riding in one direction only. Well, not exactly. Since Ben is attempting to reach the most northern, southern, eastern and western points plus the centre of Australia, it's not so straightforward. Since making it to Uluru, Ben has had to do some unavoidable backtracking, over 1,271km to be precise. For the Guinness World Record attempt, everything needs to link up, which means throwing the bike into the back of the van is strictly off limits. Besides, Ben is not at all interested in taking the easy way out.
Backtracking, however, does actually come with a few benefits. For the first time since reaching rural Australia, we felt a bit like locals. We knew what the roads would be like and everything seemed a little familiar. It was easier for Ben to plan his rides, his rest stops and where we would set up for the night. We could drop into the places we liked along the way, say hi to the people we had met, and avoid the places we didn’t like so much (Luckily only one so far, but we wont name and shame here).
Venturing east along the Lasseter highway from Uluru, Ben cycled his way back to Alice Springs for another rest day. The term 'rest day' probably doesn’t really give you a good indication of what this actually means. Given we are on the road 5 - 6 days a week, there are lots of things happening when he is off the bike, and lots to get done. Getting through everyday stuff like washing and other chores is sometimes almost impossible, so we are lucky to have help from Joan and Lance here, making life on the road that little bit easier and giving us more time to concentrate on RFJ stuff.
Being school holidays at the time, Joan organised for Ben to share his story with a group of high school kids staying in the holiday park. Ben talked about mental illness, the loss of his brother and his own experiences while on the ride. It's only natural to worry about how the kids will take the talk, especially if they are going through a difficult time themselves. You hope that they can take something positive away from it. Seeing so many of the kids come up to Ben afterwards, wanting to tell him about their own experiences, really reinforces that something good has come out of it, at least for the ones who may have needed to hear it at the time. You know that his story has connected with them in some way.
After leaving Alice Springs, Ben cycled north along the Stuart Highway for another 507km before making it to Threeways Roadhouse near Tennant Creek, where his backtracking stint would end. At this point, despite a sore rear end, Ben was doing well physically. His biggest complaint wasn't his shoulder or anything cycling related. Strangely, a set of seriously swollen feet have taken centre stage here, appearing every time he has a day off the bike. We laugh that his body is so used to riding that being off the bike is abnormal. Wearing his Firefly device to get his circulation going along with some cold packs has kept this under control, and thankfully, Ben has been able to fit his feet into his cycling shoes the next day.
On day 84, Ben was back on fresh roads heading towards the Top End. After few challenging days, we arrived at Daley Waters, a little town some 276km south of Katherine. The Daley Waters Pub and caravan park is a little gem, so full of character. With two pools and a spa it was a god send on a 40+ degree day. Every nook and cranny of this place is filled with memorabilia from travellers been and gone. Photos, Id cards, clothing, coins, even bras and undies from all over the world hanging from the ceiling. You could spend hours in the place reading all of the messages and checking out the weird and wacky things travellers have left behind, all wanting to make their mark in the outback. Joan wrote a beautiful message for Jase on a lime green hat and it was left to hang from the ceiling, a permanent reminder of the RFJ journey.
During the ride from Daley Waters to Mataranka it got hotter and hotter, and as we later found out from one of the locals, was the hottest it has been in 12 years. Ben was absolutely struggling to get in enough fluid, the break leavers on his bike were so hot he could barely hold on properly. By 2pm that day, the temperature gauge on his bike read 53 degrees and by 4pm, it had jumped to 58. While we don’t think it was that hot, it would have easily been in the mid to high 40s, made worse by the lack of shade and the heat reflecting off the bitumen. When we finally arrived at Mataranka we couldn’t wait to get down to Bitter Springs for a swim. Located in the Elsey National Park, these freshwater thermal springs can reach up to 32 degrees. While the water was warm, it was still very refreshing. Spending the afternoon here was the best way to end the hottest day of the ride so far.
It took Ben another two days from Mataranka to reach Katherine, in much the same conditions. Knowing that there would be springs to swim in at the end of the day helped Ben to stay focussed and push through the intense heat. Katherine didn't disappoint and we were lucky enough to be able to explore some more thermal springs and enjoy a bit of rest just in time before the start of the wet season and the incoming crocs (as I was later informed by one of the locals, they often pull them out of these water holes after heavy rains during the wet season. Lucky she told me this after we already swam).
At this point we came to realise that this was just the beginning of the hot weather. Heading towards Port Headland in WA, Ben will be riding through some of the hottest areas in Australia. Ben has weeks of these conditions to get through. We decided the best way to tackle this would be to change his riding routine. Getting on the road by 6:30am rather than 8:30, Ben could try and beat some of the scorching heat, and get as much of the riding out of the way as early as possible.
What a huge difference this made! Ben usually gets through 60km in the first two hours on the road, so it meant a big part of the ride was out of the way early. On so many levels this was a great thing. Ben's water stayed colder for longer and we arrived at our destination earlier, giving us some down time.
The weather also changed dramatically a couple of days out from Darwin, going from a dry heat to an intense humidity. The humidity caused Ben to sweat profusely. Gallons of it would roll down his forehead and into his eyes and made it hard for him to see properly. His jersey looked like it had been dunked in a bucket of water after only a few minutes of riding. Not the prettiest.
Arriving in Darwin was exciting, our first capital city since Brisbane. Ben wanted to make the most of the time here and try and to spread the word. The Darwin community really welcomed us with open arms and the two days here was filled with activity. Ben did two school talks, three radio interviews and one newspaper interview. We caught up with people we had met during our travels, friends from home that are now living in Darwin and we had a surprise visit from family. While our time in Darwin wasn’t very restful, we left feeling fulfilled and grateful for the opportunities that had come up to start a conversation about mental health and we were lucky to meet some amazing people, all very supportive of the cause.
Ben finished his last morning in Darwin with a ride through the city, meeting a group of Darwin cyclists. Our caravan park was way out of town so it was important for Ben to feel like he had cycled right into the heart of the city. Since leaving Darwin Ben backtracked again over two days down to Katherine, with the support of a couple of local cyclists who helped Ben get through a another big day on the road.
The new routine seems to be working well, starting and finishing earlier has been such a positive change. We are hoping that this will be enough to beat the heat, but we will just have to wait and see, we really don’t know how much hotter it will get. Ben is just taking it one day at a time and focusing on making it to the next RFJ milestone - the most westerly point of Australia.
If you or someone close to you needs support, please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.