When we left the town Gladstone, we had it all worked out.
Leastways we thought we did.
Gladstone was a small nowhere town in the what was known as the mid-north of South Australia – where there was an awful lot of ‘north’, like about 500 kilometres of it.
Anya and I had pitched our tent in a caravan park and were planning to ride our bikes to another nowhere place called Port Broughton, which was situated on the coast about a hundred kilometres south west of Gladstone.
The weather report forecast a light northerly wind in the morning which would blow up around midday and increase during the afternoon, ahead of a cool change in the evening.
Studying our map, we found a series of back roads which would take us south to a town called Redhill and from there, another unsealed back road heading west to a place called Port Broughton. In this way, we would ride south with the northerly behind us to Redhill and then in the afternoon, head west to Port Broughton when we would have the northerly as a side wind.
Distance wise, 70% of the trip was to Redhill. We calculated that the rest of the trip to Port Broughton would take at the most, around 2 hours.
But the weather report was wrong and we found ourselves heading into vortex of madness. The last leg of the journey which was supposed to be the shortest turned out to by far the longest…..
We got an early start, around 8am.
By 10am we noticed that it was quite warm and that the northerly wind was noticeably strong so that we reached Redhill much sooner than we had anticipated.
When we arrived in Redhill, it was hot. The weather report had mentioned ‘high 20’s’ but in fact, by late morning it was well over 30 degrees. It wasn’t only the temperature that the weather report was wrong about: it got the wind direction wrong too.
In Redhill there wasn’t much around, except for an old colonial era pub, an Anzac monument and a shop. The main attraction for us was an old hall – a perfect wind break – and behind it, a bench seat under a roof. We sat there at our leisure in the shade, ate lunch, drank plenty of water and refilled our water bottles.
Nicely sequestered behind the hall, we were blissfully unaware that whilst we were taking it easy, the northerly wind had gone from strength to strength before swinging to the west. It was only when we finally got on our bikes to begin the last stretch of the ride to Port Broughton, that we realised we were in trouble.
Some of the unsealed roads in South Australia are excellent for bike riding. They are relatively smooth, with a hard surface and few bumps or potholes. Others are hell on earth, rocky, pot-holed, heavy with sand or covered in corrugations. It is impossible to know beforehand what an unsealed road is going to be like. It’s always a gamble.
This time the gamble didn’t pay off.
The road to Port Broughton was a hell-on-earth back road.
Furthermore: as soon as we left the wind-shadow of the old hall, we found ourselves buffeted so hard by the wind we almost fell off our bikes. It was 1pm and already the wind was easily one of the most powerful we had ever experienced anywhere in the world – including the higher altitudes in the Himalaya.
It wasn’t long before we had to get off our bikes and push them over the rocks and it was all we could do to hold our bikes and ourselves upright. Early on in the piece we agreed not to walk alongside one another; if one of us got picked up by a gust, there was a danger of that person smashing into the other.
It was a fight to gain every meter.
I can’t remember when the dust started. Perhaps it was when we reached the top of the first hill and then began descending.
The wind became a turbid brown-yellow.
It was a whirlwind of dust and darkness. We could have been on Mars: a planet ravaged by hot silicon filled winds where no kind of life existed. There were no four-wheel drives or trucks on the roads. There were no houses or sheds to be seen. No sign of life anywhere.
At one point the wind blew me over and I landed on rocks. I knew I had hurt my leg, but this was not the time to be investigating the damage. The main thing was the bike was still ok: it was scratched, the bell had been snapped off, but the brakes and gears were still working. That was what counted.
We had to keep going.
During the last years, where ever we were in the world, Anya and I had noticed that the winds were becoming stronger and more frequent.
Strengthening winds were one of more understated of global climate change (in some parts of the world there was more at hand than simply stronger winds: there were more tornadoes and hurricanes and of greater intensity too).
As we alternatively plodded or slowly rode our bikes through the warm, powerful dust filled wind, I wondered if a day would come when we would start getting hurricanes in South Australia.
After a couple of hours of walking with our bikes and sometimes riding short sections, the road swung left.
We rode and pushed our bikes carefully over a reef of rocks and then we saw it: a four-wheel drive utility parked at the side of the road.
There was a man sitting behind the wheel.
What was he doing here, sitting alone in his SUV in the midst of this maelstrom?
He wound down his window.
It was a bizarre sight there in the midst of a dust storm seeing the window of an automobile being wound down and a face appearing.
It was a weathered, lined face with a crop of curly brown hair.
I manoeuvred my way over there.
My leg was hurting and there was blood seeping through the lower part of my trousers.
I jammed my head up close to his. With the shrieking wind it was the only way we could converse.
Inside the cabin it was strangely quiet, like an oasis of silence in a desert of noise.
‘What the hell are youse two doin?
I felt like asking him the same thing.
I yelled out ‘On a bike ride!’
He said it as if he hadn’t heard me correctly.
‘Are you mad?’
I didn’t know how to answer him.
When I did, my answer sounded a lot dumber than his question.
Maybe in a storm like this it was hard to say anything that made any sense.
‘We’re …just riding’.
He looked at me askance, with hard-bitten look of irony unique to country Australians.
‘You enjoying this are you mate?’
‘We didn’t know it was going to blow up like this ….the forecast turned out wrong..’
He laughed derisively.
‘They’re always wrong. Said 35 knots and north, then they changed it to bloody west and 60 …but it’s more than that…
‘It’s bad stuff out there mate ….I can give youse a lift into Broughton if you like…’
It was tempting to say the least.
But I knew that Anya would not even contemplate it.
I didn’t even need to put the suggestion to her.
As bad as the situation was, this was what we had chosen and we would fight it to the end – or perish in the process.
We left the farmer alone his SUV.
As we continued our battle against the dust and wind, I did some mental calculations.
The farmer had spoken about knots.
Those quaint old English terms.
Miles, yards, feet and inches. Ounces and pounds.
As a kid at primary school I’d learnt these measurements, but High School, we’d gone decimal.
A knot was almost two kilometres.
A sixty knot wind meant….almost 120 kilometres an hour.
And the farmer reckoned it was stronger.
We reached Port Broughton near nightfall, utterly exhausted.
At the reception office of the caravan park the woman behind the desk began laughing.
Have you seen yourselves?
There was a mirror at one end of the room and she motioned us over there.
Our faces and clothes were dark red-brown, completely covered in a thick layer of dust.
That night the change came.
The wind blew off the sea and light showers of rain fell.
The following morning the news was filled with stories of damage caused by the wind. In parts of Adelaide gusts of 137 kilometres per hour had been recorded. It must have been even stronger in the mid north.
After a rest day in Port Broughton we head south-east over a narrow sealed road.
The sky was grey and intermittent showers of rain fell. The dust storm seemed far away, as if from another planet.
Once again there was a clear view of a big land.
A timeless land, the oldest country in the world.
The aborigines, who had inhabited this old land for tens of thousands of years, had been shot and poisoned. The bush had been cut down and the land over cleared and over worked.
You could feel a cold hand stalking the emptiness.
In a non-descript town we saw a sign for ‘men’s health issues’.
Men’s health issues like: depression and suicide.
I thought of the farmer in his SUV from the day before. Perhaps he was watching the storm. Perhaps he was living in hell.
Farming in Australia had become a high risk activity as far as men’s health issues went. In the course of our bike rides in Australia, Anya and I had seen a lot of land which should never have been farmed. The land between Redhill and Port Broughton was a good example. It had no future. With global climate change, the thin smattering of soil covering the stones would sooner or later be blown away with ever strengthening winds and declining rainfall. Farming in areas like this had only been possible because of government subsidies and tax breaks. But the limits had been reached. Sooner or later sheer economics would put an end to farming in country like this.
Were the ‘men’s health issues’ a symbolic punishment being inflicted on the white Europeans for their crimes against the aborigines?
For their crimes against the environment?
Or was it just an existential vortex of madness – in which all of us were trapped?