By Kat Woods
"Oh my god I am sore!"
Over four months on the road and this was the first time I had heard Ben proclaim just how much his whole body was hurting. It was the day after making it to Steep Point, the most western point of Australia, and it was like Ben had whiplash to every park of his body. Throw yourself down a sand dune on a push bike and I guess this is the unavoidable consequence. He could have done with another rest day but we both knew there was no time for that - we needed to get back on the road again and pronto.
After the solo ride to Steep Point, despite his muscle soreness, Ben was happy to be riding with Matt again the next day, heading south on the North West Coastal highway towards Geraldton. The roads here a very open, long and straight, a vast space of relatively flat terrain with mostly shrubbery, low level trees and lots of red sand. Although the scenery here can be described as beautiful in its own way, it is also extremely monotonous. When you are travelling at 30km an hour and nothing seems to change, it can get very boring. It wasn't a leisurely ride either, the boys were faced with a steady headwind, so a flowing conversation between them to pass the time wasn't a possibility.
So what does one do when you are terribly bored and looking for some excitement during another day glued to the saddle? None other than goat races of course! (yes, I said GOAT, as in the farm animal that eats everything). This was something we were not expecting to see in the arid lands of Western Australia. There are over 2.6 million feral goats in Australia, with a large proportion of these living in the Mid-West region of WA. From old, wrinkled looking billy goats to the cute little guys - huge packs of goats could be seen regularly grazing near the highway. These goats are quick too (hence why I have no photos), speeding off and away from the strange sounds of grinding chains and spinning wheels. Ben and Matt loved going as fast as they could as the goat families ran frantically along side them making their strange little goat noises. This is a bizzare sight in the middle of the Australian dessert. We realised after a while that they must be more intelligent than we gave them credit for - we only saw one dead goat by the side of the road throughout this leg of the journey. They clearly understand the concept of running away from danger (unlike our kangaroo friends).
The headwinds here were terrible, and even though Ben was feeling uncomfortable physically, he and Matt were able to get though a big couple of days of riding. Two days later, they triumphantly rode into Geraldton for a much needed rest day, a coastal city in WA with a population of around 40,000. We were hosted in Geraldton by a high spirited, friendly and welcoming local who got in contact after we appeared on the Today Show, offering up a place for us to park our vans on her land, with access to water and power. Lee made us feel very welcome, getting lots of people involved in the community including the Rotary Club, cycling club and the local newspaper. Times like this make you realise how much good there is in the world - there are so many people out there that want to support a good cause, even welcoming complete strangers into their homes.
At this point we were all getting excited about reaching Perth, but we had been warned by local cyclists about the dangers of the journey south of Geraldton. They explained that while we wouldn't need to be on the lookout for road trains, the coastal road north of Perth is well known for hooligans, who use winding narrow road as a playground. 'A beautiful coastal road!' we were told by the cyclists, but also 'very dangerous', and not somewhere any of them would ride by choice. Of course, Ben and Matt had no other option and I was once again filled with anxiety and worry about the next leg of the ride.
This 440km ride to Perth took Matt and Ben another two days, and whilst the first day of riding out of Geraldton wasn't too bad, once they made it to the Indian Ocean Drive the dangers of being a cyclist on this road became very apparent. It was narrow, with little to no shoulder and lots of blind, sharp corners. We could feel a city close approaching as many of the country road niceties began to dissipate and the road became busier and busier. It wasn't possible for us to stay close to Ben and Matt anymore, there was never anywhere safe for the support vehicles to pull off the road. We had no choice but to drive ahead and meet them at the rest stops instead, every 30 - 40km, leaving Ben and Matt to make do with whatever water they had on them at the time.
It was a huge relief to finally make it to Perth safely. One of the most isolated major cities in the world, and in my opinion, one of the most beautiful cities in Australia. The boys made the most of their non-riding days and were busy with fun activities; a day at the cricket, dinner out with friends, eating their way around the city. Sadly, this was where we would say goodbye to Matt who had endured over 1,400km, almost non stop headwinds, consistent 40+ degree weather and some mind-numbing terrain to support Ben and the Ride for Jase. We were grateful to him for giving us his time and energy - he had become part of the crew. In his place, we had Jared, a good friend from Sydney who would join Ben for the next leg of the ride from Perth to Esperance.
After Matt left, we couldn't believe how much things had changed. There was no doubt that Jared and Matt would have completely different experiences during their time with us. The 40+ degree weather was suddenly a distant memory as the temperature dropped 20 degrees overnight. By the time we reached the Margaret River in Southern WA, it was cold and wet. Rain poured in heavy bouts for days. It wasn't ideal for Ben and Jared to be riding in these conditions but it was also a welcome change - watching rain is quite fascinating when it has been months since you last saw it fall. We rummaged through the under bed storage in our motorhome, trying to find our winter coats and woollies that we had stored away since the previous winter. It was mid December at this point so WAY to early to be rugged up, but still, a nice change.
The scenery along this leg of the ride, through Southern WA; the Margaret river, Pemberton and Denmark, was also a striking contrast to the previous months on the road. We loved Southern Western Australia's endless greenery and rolling hills, tall green trees and dense bushland. It reminded us of parts of NSW and made us feel at home. It took two more days of riding before we finally made it to Coalmine Peaks on the south coast of of WA. It was bitterly cold in the water but Ben and Jared decided they absolutely had to go for a swim to mark the end of the day - the first time we had all laid eyes on the Southern Ocean.
We fell more and more in love as we travelled through Southern WA, passing by some of the most beautiful beaches we had ever seen and quaint little towns along the way. The downside to travelling through Australia at such a fast pace was that we felt a deep sense of wanting to see and experience the places Ben had worked so hard to get to. We tried to take it in as we passed by but had to learn to let go of any real desire to explore and spend time there. Unless it was a designated rest day, we were merely passing through. This area of WA was the worst for this, the coastline is pristine. The temptation to swim and laze about in the sun was overwhelming. With our tight schedule the best we could manage was an ankle deep splash around in the crystal clear water during our lunch break before Ben and Jared were back on their bikes again. We made a mental note of these places that we loved, and agreed we would try to go back one day.
Ten days after leaving Perth, Ben and Jared finally cycled into Esperance on Christmas Eve, right on schedule. Jared had played such an important part during this leg of the journey. Ben and Jared helped keep each other's spirits up after hours of riding in the rain and the heat when it warmed up again, rotating every 5km to share the load. Jared pushed himself to the limits riding over 1,200km to support Ben, and we witnessed them both really feel the physical strain and mental pull a challenge like this puts on the mind and body. It felt like the end of an era arriving in Esperance - it would mark the final day of riding with a buddy by Ben's side. From now on, and for the remainder of the journey, Ben would be slogging it out on his own.
We spent Christmas the way many Aussies do; lots of cheesy Christmas carols, splurging on delicious food, soaking up the sun, finally enjoying a swim and some relaxation. There wasn't much alcohol involved - anymore than two beers would put Ben in a terrible state and would make the next day on the road absolute torture. Besides, Ben has to be in top form. On Boxing day Ben would make his way towards the Nullabor where the next big Ride for Jase challenge would begin....
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