Darkness was coming but the howling headwind whipping at my body and had pounded me for the past fourteen hours refused to abate.
Standing over my bike while leaning into the vicious wind, I swigged down the last of the hot water from my canteen. I had eaten the remaining Snicker bar about an hour ago. The red bitumen and surrounding the desert floor radiated latent heat from a scorching afternoon.
Forty kilometers of the open desert still lay between me and the roadhouse at Cadney Park, the day’s destination I should have arrived at three or four hours ago. But the fierce headwind had had me crawling across the desert floor at a snail’s pace. Now, several hours of riding in the dark stood ahead of me.
Merciless Desert Winds
It was the 10th of November 2016. I was making my way from Coober Pedy to Cadney Park, some 155 km away. The day’s ride should have been a relatively uneventful, but a howling headwind turned it into a mini-epic adventure.
When I look at the image above, I remember the day’s journey like it was yesterday. A Thursday, I think it was, my single toughest day in the Australian Outback.
Earlier in the dull predawn light, I rolled down a gravel path that led out of the Opal Inn Caravan Park and back onto National Highway 87, the Stuart Highway. A German tourist I’d talked with the night before was standing smoking a cigarette in the glow of a yard lamp by one of the camp restrooms. He looked up, recognized me, and with a smile, gave me a nod and “thumbs up” as I passed.
I began pushing a stiff headwind from the moment I cleared the outskirts of Coober Pedy tracking north on Highway 87. My plan starting early to beat the wind for a few hours had failed.
For the first couple of hours, the wind was manageable. Blowing at 15-20 kph seemed, the stiff breeze doable. I hunkered down over the handlebars and pedaled through a surreal landscape of hundreds of tailing piles from opal mines north of Coober Pedy. Even traveling at 13-14 kph, I could still make Cadney Park by the end of the day, or so I deluded myself.
No Relief in Sight
Around midday, I replenished my dromedary bags at green concrete water tank the Portnoura rest stop. Temperatures had climbed into the low 40’s a couple of hours ago. I was downing a liter of water about every hour but still making progress, albeit at a sloth’s pace in the face of an unceasing 30 kph headwind. Well, at least in the big wind there were no black flies to annoy me, I consoled myself and pedaled on. Any hopes of making Cadney Park by sundown had long since evaporated in the sweltering heat.
Alone in the vastness of the Outback, one’s mind tends to drift away. A voice in my head kept me driving the pedals and turning the wheels forward.
The Australian Outback is an incredible place. The country’s “big red center” is a hot, desolate desert, and is as authentic as the Outback gets.
With the boiling afternoon heat came vicious gusts that would virtually grind my bike to a halt. Every few minutes or so, I would have to stop and stand until the blasts passed. Forward movement riding the bicycle was not possible.
Head down and cocked against the wind, I worked at getting as low as possible on the bike to duck the relentless, soul-crushing rushes of hot air. It was like riding in a blast furnace. Grinding forward at eight kph, hour after hour, seemingly making no progress, I was beginning to think I’d never reach the Cadney Roadhouse at this pace. Bivouacking in brush at the side of the road in venomous brown snake territory was becoming a serious option.
In the late afternoon, purple and white bolts of lightning flashed from storm clouds on the eastern horizon. As with the desert southwest in the U.S., I figured the wind would die down after the sun had set. It didn’t.
Standing over my bike and leaning into the wind during one of my many to rest stops, I had the presence of mind to make a few images of this dazzling sunset. With the camera strap whipping at my face, I snapped off a couple of frames before continuing. In this picture, though not visible in the frame, I can still sense the howling gusts of wind tearing at my body as I struggle to steady the camera.
Into the Desert Night
The Australian Outback contains such beautiful landscapes, all in a savage, desolate environment. “Authentic,” I thought. This scene at this moment is as authentic as the Outback gets. It’s Australia in its most raw and natural form. What a beautiful place.
It took me four hours to ride the final 35 kilometers. The final four 10-kilometer markers where passing at over an hour apart. The last three hours of it, I rode in the dark. I could see lights from the roadhouse about twenty kilometers out. It seems like it took forever to get there.
In the dark, I continually ran upon groups of kangaroos on the road. They would freeze in the beam of the headlamp. I had to yell at them to get out of the way, at which time they would hop once or twice letting me pass.
Every thirty minutes or so, gigantic Road Trains, or semi-trucks pulling four trailers roared past me with all the manners of a runaway freight train. Their array of driving lights, a half a dozen or so, lit up like the sun, temporarily blinding me if I dared look at them. I could always tell if a Road Train had spotted me or not, as they would dim their lights when passing. I was still sure to get off the road and give them plenty of room to pass.
Temporary Respite from Adventure
Running low on water and beginning to get dehydrated, I rolled up on the Cadney Park just before 10:00 pm. The clerk had already closed out the cash register and was locking up, but he was kind enough to let me buy some water, cookies, and several ice cream bars, which I ate for dinner in the dark on a bench outside the roadhouse.
The wind howled all night long. I set my tent up on the ground inside of a three-walled camp kitchen to get out of the wind. Tucked up against a wall of corrugated metal, I found shelter from the blasting gusts of wind. However, the sound howled all night and eventually lulled me to an exhausted slumber. Morning and more wind would come all too soon.
Journey’s need to have some challenge to be proper adventures. The outcome must be uncertain. Today was one of those times. At the end of this most challenging day, I considered myself “Outback proven.”