By Kat Woods
Since leaving Sydney, Ben has now cycled over 8,000km. I know it’s a long way because I have been here with him, but it is not until I look at the map does it hit me just how far he has come. It has taken 72 days on the road to reach Uluru, the red centre of Australia and the third checkpoint of the Ride for Jase journey.
After a few days off in Cairns to get things organised post the Cape York leg of the trip, we were ready to get going again and start the journey towards the red centre of Australia. I was expecting yells of joy and lots of smiles from Ben on the first day back on sealed roads. After riding to Cape York, I think we all had false expectations that the rest would somehow seem 'easy'. I definitely didn't expect the first day back to be so challenging for him after what he had just completed. Getting back on the road bike after spending 2 weeks on a mountain bike in completely different terrain took some time to get used to. For someone who has always been a road cyclist, Ben strangely felt awkward and out of sync. The shorter days up north had resulted in a change in his endurance fitness levels and the longer distances in the saddle were a real struggle a first. Despite feeling more exhausted than normal, Ben gradually adjusted to the change and got back into his daily riding routine.
As we ventured west along the Savannah Way in northern Queensland, other than the sealed roads, it felt like we were back in the Cape. Lots of red dirt and a dry, dry heat. The roads were extremely narrow, sometimes only one lane, and busy with road trains. There is no phone reception or internet between towns so we stayed within 10km of Ben so that he could reach us on the 2-way. This means pulling off the road and waiting for 10 minutes before catching up to him again and doing this over and over again for 6 - 8 hours a day. Tedious, but worth it to make sure he is ok. And it means we get to warn the road train drivers that Ben is on the road ahead, which has come in handy a few times already.
The further we got inland, the further apart the towns were, resulting in massive days on the road. Ben had no choice but to cover greater distances in a day so that we could make it to the next town. This was a challenge. Riding over 200km consecutively in 40 degree heat ain't easy! (I have never done it and probably never will, so I am taking Ben's word for it). Luckily, the scorching heat gave way and by the time we got to Mt Isa on 29th September, the weather had dropped back to normal temps for this time of year. Still hot, but a dream compared to 40.
After 10 days of riding from the east coast of QLD and covering over 1400km, Ben finally cycled across the border and into the Northern Territory. An exciting moment for all of us. There have been some pretty big milestones during this journey but crossing a border is a big deal. It’s kind of like a fresh start, a new adventure. It’s a reminder that Ben is getting closer and closer to making it all the way.
It’s amazing how much the landscape changes out here and just how quickly. When we hit the NT it was almost instantaneously flat. It makes you feel like you can see forever. Just miles of tall grass and sporadic herds of cows, horses and wildlife. Long grass as far as the eye can see might sound boring, but it was beautiful. There is nothing to block the view of the sun as it sets along the horizon and the movement of the grass in the afternoon breeze. Magical stuff.
Being in a new state, heading towards the very centre of Australia was exciting and we were all looking forward to what was to come. We tend not to be able to venture off track and explore areas outside of the riding itinerary unless it's a rest day, so we were pretty stoked that Ben's itinerary had us travelling right through a Northern Territory must see on day 64 of the ride. The Karlu Karlu (Devils Marbles Conservation Reserve), is just under 100km south of Tennant Creek and is absolutely incredible. A collection of enormous granite boulders scattered across a wide shallow valley, balancing on top of one another, appearing to defy gravity. Karlu Karlu is a sacred aboriginal site of great cultural importance so we weren’t able to climb the boulders but they were just as amazing from the ground. There were a few vans of other travellers here at the time all curious as to why there was a guy in lycra on his push bike. A bunch of kids wanted to know where Ben had cycled from; the look on their faces when we told them he had cycled from Sydney was priceless.
The next few days on the road to Alice Springs were eventful for Ben. A close call with a brown snake who took a strike at him as he passed, narrowly missing by inches. Dodging herds of frantic cows, strangely terrified by the sound of a bike but not too fussed by a car (hence so much cow road kill!). A broken rear derailer, numerous flat tyres, a bogged support vehicle. Despite the adventures of life on the road, Ben was now on a roll averaging 174km a day with an average speed of 29.3km an hour. At this point he was well adjusted to long days and the increasing temps, but was ready for a couple of days off, so coming into Alice Springs couldn't have come sooner. After seeing so many small towns it felt like a big city in comparison, nestled in between the impressive MacDonnell ranges. We loved having a couple of days off to rest at the Big 4. We were all big kids again going down the epic water slide and enjoying the amazing free Sunday pancakes thanks to Brendan and the team. Ben was also able to fit in a talk to high school students here which was definitely the highlight of this part of the trip.
After a good rest, Ben was back on the road for another 3 days and over 469km from Alice Springs to Uluru. As we ventured closer towards Uluru, it gradually took on the quintessential Australian look that you know and expect of the outback. Rolling hills, lots of shades of green, red earth peering out from between the shrubbery, so peaceful and serene. It's really amazing how far in the distance you can see Uluru, long before you come anywhere near it.
The journey from the entry point to Kata Tjuta National Park to the base of Uluru is a good 15km ride. Ben took this part of the ride nice and slow, taking in every angle of the rock which is visible along the winding highway until you finally reach the base. From afar Uluru looks dusty and sandy and its not until you get up closer to it that you can see that it is all solid rock. It was a proud moment when Ben reached the base of Uluru with Jase's ashes in hand, made even more special having his mum Joan there with him by his side.
We only had one rest day at Yulara (the closest town to Uluru) so we were up early and on our way back to the Uluru the next day. Being short on time to explore the area and wanting to get around the full 10.5km base of Uluru, we decided that Ben would ride his bike around it and I would run next to him. No easy task in the outback heat! I got some strange looks from passers by, but it definitely made me appreciate what Ben is doing even more than I already do. Highly recommend walking/running/riding around Uluru if you want to experience the vastness of the rock itself without climbing it. We spent the rest of the day exploring the Olgas at Kata Tjuta National Park and watched the sunset from the lookout that evening. They Olgas don't get as much attention as Uluru but they are just as incredible and there are lots of different walks you can do so worth spending some time there.
We were told by a lot of people we have met along the way that if you go to Uluru, you absolutely have to make a stop in at Kings Canyon, another spiritual site in Watarrka National Park. After one day off at Uluru, Ben was back on his bike bound for Kings Canyon. It was well worth the detour as this place has been one of our favourite spots so far. We did the 6km rim walk which gives you the most incredible views looking out across the canyon. It is a challenging walk and takes about 3 hours but I think this really depends on how many photos you take, which will most likely be a lot because it is so beautiful. There are signs everywhere asking you to stay at least 2 metres from the edge and its easy to see why, with parts of the cliff face giving way and falling into the Canyon (maybe a million years ago but, still, safety first people).
We have met a lot of fantastic people during this leg of the journey. It was exciting to stumble across other cyclists who were taking on the Aussie outback. Seeing them carrying everything they needed (including water) on their bikes, some travelling this way around the world, over a number of years, was very inspiring. It was great to be able to share stories and hear about their own experiences of life on the road. We also had lots of people who have wanted to get involved and help out in different ways. Lots of caravan parks along the way donating camping sites, the musician at Kings Canyon Resort's bar, giving up his tip jar for two nights while we were there to promote the ride and bring in some donations. Ben has had people offer him water as he rides past as well as others standing on the side of the road cheering him on and holding out donations. You certainly see a lot of good in the people doing something like this. Ben is now heading north again through the Northern Territory, Darwin bound. We are looking forward to reaching Katherine and then seeing the ocean again when we reach Darwin.
Until next time!