When we planned the bike trip to Port Broughton, it seemed to make sense.
When we actually did it, it t made no sense at all.
The problem was the weather.
At the caravan park in Gladstone, we read a newspaper weather report which forecast that a change was due the following day: a light northerly wind would blow up around midday and increase during the afternoon, ahead of a cool change. The northerly would get very strong before the change. In the evening there would be rain and the wind would shift to west south-west.
Gladstone was a small town in what is known as the ‘mid-north’ of South Australia. We had been on our bikes for a week, loaded up with a small tent, insulation mats, sleeping bags and clothes – and of course, that most precious of resources in Australia, water. We had no fixed destination in mind, only a general idea of heading from the mid-north further north.
That plan changed when we read about the impending northerly winds.
Bike riding is dependent on wind direction; one eventuality which we always tried to avoid was riding directly into a wind, especially a strong one. At the very least we tried to arrange it so that we had the wind as a side-wind. We were always ready to change our plans depending on the wind strength and direction.
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 Port Broughton – which lay on the coast. The plan was: 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.
We didn’t know what we would find in Port Broughton. It hardly mattered. It was a dot on the map, like most of the other dots we had ridden to during the previous week.
We got an early start, around 8am.
By 10am we noticed that it was quite warm and that the northerly wind was noticeable, even though we were riding with it.
Two hours later, when we arrived in Redhill, it was quite warm. The weather report had mentioned ‘high 20’s’ but in fact, by midday it was well over 30 degrees. But it wasn’t only the temperature that the weather report was wrong about: there was a hurricane strength northerly on the way.
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 amenities block 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 amenities block, we were blissfully unaware that whilst we were taking it easy, the northerly wind was going from strength to strength. 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.
As soon as we left the wind-shadow of the amenities block we were buffeted so hard 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. Also: we walked on the right hand side of the road, where the wind was coming from, so that if we were blown over, we wouldn’t pile into the fence.
It was a fight to gain every meter.
The only saving grace was the thought that the back road to Port Broughton was short.
But it took much longer than we had expected: 5 hours.
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 turned brown-red.
We’d been in dust storms before, but nothing like this.
The emptiness we were so used to, was now suddenly gone, and in its place was an encroaching horizon 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.
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 was the most understated of all the effects 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, the road swung left.
We rode our bikes carefully over a reef of rocks and then we saw it: there was a four-wheel drive utility parked at the side of the road.
There was a man sitting behind the wheel.
What was he doing there?
I thought about this later that night in the caravan park at Port Broughton (by which time the wind had swung around and light rain was falling).
Perhaps he was watching the storm.
Perhaps he was depressed. A lot of farmers were, all over the country.
Sometimes we rode into towns and saw signs for ‘men’s health issues’. (In the politically correct parlance of modern Australia there was no such thing as a ‘problem’; there was ‘an issue’ or ‘a challenge’)
The ‘issue’ was: farmers had an unfortunate habit of getting depressed, not telling anyone, and then one day committing suicide.
Farming in Australia had become a high risk activity as far as depression and suicide 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: land for which the term ‘marginal’ was inadequate. When we saw the land between Redhill and Port Broughton we knew we were looking at marginal land, at country which had no future. The thin smattering of soil covering the stones would sooner or later be blown away with global climate change’s ever strengthening winds – and its declining rainfall. As it was, farming in areas like this had only been possible in the past because of massive government subsidies. The subsidies would soon prove to be insufficient. Sheer economics would put an end to farming in country like this.
Farmers were being increasingly squeezed, caught up in the contradictions of a hard land and changing weather and the need to turn a profit. Their forefathers had come out to the new land full of hope and the hope had remained alive through the generations, but now it was ebbing and the time had come when one family after the other was forced to leave.
Yes, in the declining visibility of a terrible dust storm it was possible to see many things.
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 the trouser.
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.
The farmer, for reasons known best to him, was sitting in this oasis and watching the maelstrom around him.
‘What the hell are youse two doin? Training or something?
What a dumb question.
Battle for hours through a vortex of dust and wind over the worst road in the world and meet the first human being on Mars and he asks you if you’re ‘training’.
Training for what?
The ‘Dust Bowl Olympics’ maybe?
I didn’t know how to answer him.
When I did, my answer turned out to be a lot dumber than his question.
Maybe in a storm like this it was hard to say anything that made any sense.
‘We’re doing a bike ride in the mid-north….not training or anything….just riding for enjoyment’
He looked at me askance, with a mixture of disbelief and bemusement, that hard-bitten sense of irony which is unique to country Australians:
You enjoy this?
‘Let me tell you something mate, this is serious stuff out here. I wonder if you know what’s going on. ‘
By this time I think I had a pretty good idea what was going on but I kept my opinion to myself.
‘Bloody bureau said 35 knots, then they changed it to bloody 40 …but I reckon this is closer to bloody 50!
Those quaint old English terms.
Miles, yards, feet and inches. Ounces and pounds.
I’d grown up with these measurements but after years of living in Europe had switched over to decimal.
I had to do some calculations. The wind we were experiencing that afternoon was 80, 90 kilometres per hour.
We reached a small town called Mundoora.
There was no one about. Everyone was bunkered inside.
Then came what seemed like a lucky break: there was a sealed road from Mundoora to Port Broughton. It wasn’t indicated on our map. For once I was glad about the map being wrong.
A sealed road after the awful back road was a welcome change.
Yet strangely enough the trip didn’t get really any easier. It was 16 kilometres to Port Broughton and the sealed road, like the back road, was all up and downs, rises and dips.
It was hot, especially with our loaded up bikes and having to ascend so many steep rises.
And dust got thicker. It became something like dense smoke. Visibility fell to around 50 meters. At one point we considered stopping and lying flat down on the ground in an area of bush and waiting for the wind to shift direction and the cool change to take effect.
As night fell, we arrived in Port Broughton, 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 were dark red-brown; completely covered in dust.
That night the change came.
The wind blew in 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.
From Port Broughton we head south-east heading over a narrow sealed road. The sky was grey and intermittent showers of rain fell. There was enough rain to hold down the dust but not enough to support new seedlings.
The dust storm seemed far away, something from a nightmare.
Once again there was a clear view of a big land.
It was bleak that view. A timeless land, the oldest country in the world, had been cleared and over worked by the white man.
Yesterday hell on earth, today a cold hand stalking the emptiness.
We passed the remains of an old house built in the late 19th century and abandoned.
The image of that wrecked house symbolised everything that could be said about this country and the hopes it had raised in the hearts of generations of farmers – and then dashed so completely.