By Kat Woods
Have you ever heard of Steep Point?
Before this venture I had never heard of it, let alone know anything about how to get there.
We have a friend who had been there, and it was mentioned that the track to the most western point of Australia is sandy. That's ok, we thought. Ben did two weeks of off-road cycling up to Cape York, and Steep Point is only a 144km ride from the highway, so how hard could it possibly be? Looking back I guess we had been lulled into a false sense of security. In our minds the most challenging leg of the ride was done and anything Ben would encounter going forward would unlikely come close to what he had already put himself through.
When we arrived in Shark Bay on the coast of Western Australia, we had one day to pick up our hired 4WD and pack it with everything we needed for the journey. We were back on the road early the next morning for the 80km drive to Useless Loop Road (actually quite a fitting name), where Ben would jump on his mountain bike and start his 144km ride. It was during this 6am drive that it suddenly dawned on me that amongst our busyness to get everything organised, we had failed to do our Steep Point homework. We knew very little about the place and what to expect. We had lots of questions but with no internet, no phone reception and no real plans, I suddenly felt that we were very much on our own. How long will a tank of petrol last in this car? Will it be enough to get us out there and back again? Is there anywhere to fill up out there? Where do we let the tyres down? Where do we camp and do we need a permit? I had so many questions!
We were on a tight schedule, with only two days to give it a shot and no time to diddle dawdle around. We decided that Ben would get started and I would drive another 40km in the opposite direction to the nearest service station in search of petrol, reception and answers to my questions. While this was a frustrating detour, it was well worth it. I got the information I was after; the 4WD had two tanks which would be plenty for a 288km round trip, camping permits can be purchased at the rangers station upon arrival and we can let our tyres down upon entry to the National Park. Phew! Feeling relieved, but still unable to shake the nervous feeling in my stomach, I jumped in the car and headed back towards Ben to try and catch up with him.
The first part of the road out to Steep Point is bitumen for about 12km, and with a strong tailwind, Ben had managed to ride 60km by the time I caught up. At this point he was cycling on unsealed roads, rocky and bumpy, but all in all not too bad. He had been making speedy time and was in good spirits. After a quick break Ben rode another 40km in record time. We were feeling very positive and at this rate we would likely be at Steep Point in a few hours, plenty of time to get to the rangers office for a camping permit before it closed at 4pm.
It wasn't long before we came across this warning sign and suddenly things weren't looking so rosy.
The first 10km from this point alternated between heavy corrugation (bumpy like a corrugated roof) and soft sand. Ben hadn't been able to hire a fat tyre bike from anywhere nearby, so he was attempting to tackle this on his mountain bike. It was a slow 10km from this point. Often getting bogged, Ben's back wheel fishtailing, having to stop and start over and over again until he could find some grip. We let his tyres down to 5 PSI - they were almost flat and this helped somewhat. It was all very slow but he was moving and making progress. If it was like this the whole way it would be difficult, but possible, and we remained positive. I was still driving the car on full tyre pressure as we hadn't seen anywhere to let them down, but was certain we would come across it at some point soon and so far everything seemed to be going ok.
All my positive thinking and determination to stay calm went out the window when we came to a steep sand dune with a narrow winding track and a sign which said 'Let your types down to 18 - 20 PSI'. I realised that there was no means to be able to do this (and measure the pressure) like we had been told. So, I stupidly kept driving hoping for the best and of course, after about 100 metres uphill I got bogged. Luckily Ben was right behind me and came up with the genius idea to use his bike pump to let down the tyres and get them to the correct PSI. I was beside myself with worry but this worked and Ben managed to get the car unbogged.
By this time it was 3pm and Ben had another 30km to go. We knew that we needed to get to get to the ranger station by the time it closed, so Ben suggested I go ahead and not stop anywhere in case I get bogged again and just wait for him there. Not really sure if this was a good idea, but out of fear of being bogged again, I left him and continued on the arduous path towards the ranger station.
What came over the next 20km was the scariest track of road I have ever encountered. There are no photos of this track because it was just too dangerous to stop. It wasn't a road. It was sand dune after sand dune, so steep that when I made it to the top all I could see was the bonnet of the car and the sky above. I kept wondering how Ben was going to be able to get through this on a push bike; my instincts telling me it wasn't possible. I wanted to stop and wait for Ben but it didn't seem safe, the track was only wide enough to fit one car, there were so many blind spots and I was terrified of getting bogged. I kept driving until finally I arrived at the rangers office. I jumped out the car and ran up to the ranger, desperately worried about Ben being out there on his own. When I told the ranger that Ben was on a push bike about 20km back, his eyes widened.
"You think I shouldn't have left him out there on his own?" I asked.
"Well love, I got two more vehicles coming out here this arvo and I can tell you that the first time they see him will be when they are on top of him".
I was struck with panic, a huge lump in my throat, trying not to cry.
"But the cars are noisy right and there is nothing out here. He'll be able to hear them when they are coming up behind him and he can move out of their way yeah?" I asked, hoping he would tell me that what Ben was doing was perfectly safe.
"He won't be able to hear them", he said, "not with the wind howling the way it is".
Oh shit. What had I done? The ranger agreed that I absolutely had to go back to Ben and try to get to him before the other cars heading in his direction. I jumped back in the car and scooted off the way I had come.
I drove and drove, desperate to find Ben. Every few minutes blurting loudly down the two-way, "Ben, do you copy?" It took about half an hour of driving until finally I got a response. "Yep...Kat...I copy"
What a relief! A couple of minutes later and I see him ahead. I stop the car, leap out and run into his sweaty arms, unable to stop the tears, so happy to have found him. We agreed that it was a stupid decision to split up, and so I sat closely behind him all the way to the rangers station.
The ranger was impressed when he saw a sandy, sweaty, dishevelled looking Ben ride up to his station window. He couldn't believe that he rode his bike most of the way. Ben explained that he had to walk about 5km over some of the really steep sand dunes before hurtling himself and his bike down the other side, just hoping for the best. He fell a few times, but was lucky to land on his good shoulder.
There was 10km left to go to the most western point of Australia from the rangers station, and as there was still some sunlight left, Ben decided he would try and make it the whole way before the end of the day. I sat behind him, driving about 20km an hour, and didn't let him out of my sight. Now that we knew we were close to the finishing point, the anxiety was replaced by a feeling of exhalation and I noticed the exceptional beauty and unique landscape around me.
Less than an hour later, and right on sunset, Ben cycled his flat tyred mountain bike right up to the most westerly point of Australia. Yelling, jumping up and down like crazy in celebration. To say that we were both on a high would be an understatement. It was the most unbelievable feeling to watch Ben fulfil this part of the journey and a very emotional moment for Ben showing Jase this special place. There had been sweat, there had been tears (all mine) and there had been lots of stress and worry about the whole ordeal, but he had made it. Safe and sound. Despite everything he came up against he never gave up - he was determined to get there for his brother. With Jase's ashes in hand, we watched the sunset over the horizon, the last people in Australia to see the sunset for that day.
We camped that night by the ocean and although we were both exhausted, we barely slept a wink. I put this down to the almost gale force winds beating about our rooftop tent, but all of the adrenaline and emotions from the day's events was probably the real cause of our insomnia. We ate our breakfast on the beach the next morning, watching the sunrise and the waves crashing in the ocean, not another soul in sight, filled with a mix of happiness and relief.
Unfortunately, the kilometres Ben cycled up to Cape York and out to Steep Point won't be included in his Guinness World Record attempt because they were done on a different type of bike. This meant that there was no point in Ben torturing himself and riding back the next day, so he got to sit this one out in the car with me. We both learnt a lot from the journey out to Steep Point. We will be more careful with our planning, finding time in advanced to do more research, especially the more dangerous parts of the ride and won't be getting complacent again. We are both just so grateful that we got out of there!
Ben will be sticking to sealed roads from now on, and with only one more milestone to go, the most southern point of Australia, we are hoping that the most challenging part of Ben's journey is now behind him.
If you or someone close to you needs support, please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.