Frosty Wooldridge


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Adventure in Australia: Dead from the Neck UP!

                              "It's lonely without a friend to share the road."
                                                                   Doug Armstrong
            Australia captivates everyone's imagination.  Oz, its­ nickname, is a land filled with exotic creatures that defy­ description.  Nine tenths of Australia is desert.  It's an­ ancient continent with most of its mountains flattened by ­millions of years of erosion.  Along its coasts, breathtaking ­beauty abounds in a variety of temperate zones from rain forests, ­to 7,000-foot mountains in the Snowy River Range of Victoria.  ­Legends have it that British convicts populate Oz.  ­
          Nothing could be further from the truth.  Aussies are some of the ­kindest people on the face of the earth.  They possess a dry­ sense of humor that keeps life in perspective.  "No worries me ­mate," is their answer to problems that are trivial and not worth ­an anxiety attack.  Riding a bicycle in Oz is an experience in friendliness.
            A mate invited me to a party in Sydney on a Saturday ­afternoon a week prior to my departure on my trans-Australia ­crossing.  A group of Aussies were singing, joking and getting ­pissed (drunk).  They sang about the hard times in Oz, and a collection of other ribald lyrics about wine, women and the ­Outback.  At one of the high points of the party, they sang­ Yankee songs in my honor.  Their best one was, "I'm an old cow­hand, from the Rio Grande."  After singing a few stanzas, a chap ­named Richard asked me what a Yank might be doing in Australia.
            "I'm going to ride my push-bike across your country," I ­answered.
            "You're gonna' do what?" Richard asked again.
            "Ride my push-bike to Perth."
            "Do you know how far that is?"
            "Oh yeah," I said. "Over 3,000 kilometers."
"Did you know that you're going across the Nullabor Plains, mate?"
            "Yes, I saw it on the map,"
            "Do you know what Nullabor means in Aborigine?" he asked.
            "No, what?"
            "It means 'treeless,'" he said after swigging on a Foster's ­beer. "There ain't a tree for 2,500 kilometers, and it's 38­degrees (app. 115 Fahrenheit) at this time of year.  It's nothin' but a bloody desert.  You'll cook like an egg in a fryin' pan."
            "It'll be a great adventure," I said.
            "You know what mate?" he said. "I reckon you're dead from ­the neck up!"
            Richard was right about the Nullabor.  The highway shot­ straight toward the horizon, bisecting the land into two equal ­halves of nothing but desert.  When I hit Ceduna "The Gateway To­The Nullabor Plains," three signs warned travelers of animals to watch out for--wombats, camels and kangaroos.  They might have­ added the Emu, an ostrich-like bird that inhabits the Outback.  ­When drivers hit one with their cars, a large repair job results.
            Nothing could have prepared me for that ride.  I suffered ­under a merciless sun.  The heat sucked moisture out of my pores ­faster than I could pour it back into my body.  I carried five­ gallons of water in plastic jugs.  A thousand times I asked­ myself what was I doing out there?  Why hadn't I listened to ­Richard.  I cooked daily in the saddle and broiled at night in my­ tent.  To top that off, Australian bush flies attacked me every ­time I stopped.  Those demonic monsters respected no one, and­ they seemed to be searching for water themselves in that desolate­ land. 
      As soon as I stopped, they attacked my eyes, mouth, ­nostrils and ears.  I prayed for head winds.  I prayed for tail­winds.  I got no winds.  At night, flies circled my tent in an­ expectant swarm, trying to find a break in the netting.  I lay ­there in my underpants, sweating in the evening heat, cursing them and waiting for sleep to take me away from their noisy ­torment.  The one good thing I remember was staring up at an­ uncommonly clear night sky with millions of twinkling stars ­complimented by the Southern Cross.
            Each morning, I woke up before sunrise, ate breakfast and ­pedaled into the quickly rising heat of the day.  It never ­dropped below 95 degrees at night and the mercury popped 115 by ­the afternoon.  It was like breathing air from a portable hair­dryer.
            The Outback defies description.  Its vast landscape of red ­clay, and white sands reaches to the horizon in every direction. ­ Scrub bushes grow close to the ground but they too give way to the burning 160-degree heat at ground level at midday.  In many­ areas, nothing grows. 
            The only companion that I could count on was the sun--­always shining and blistering hot.  Because of it, and the ­endless immensity of the land, the Outback swallowed my ­confidence.  There were no reference points, no humanity for ­hundreds of miles.  Traffic on the trans-Australia highway was ­nonexistent.  A true sense of solitude crept into my mind.  Road­houses were 120 miles apart, but they were nothing more than wooden buildings with a gas pump outside. 
         When I reached one, my ­spirits rose because I knew that cold pop was waiting in their­ generator powered coolers.  I stalked into the house, swatting ­bush flies and headed straight for the cooler.  A liter of icy­ orange pop vanished into my mouth within seconds.  I grabbed another before walking up to the cashier to pay the bill.  A half-hour later, the road house rippled in the heat waves of my rearview mirror and quickly vanished, as if it had never been ­there.  I was back to drinking tepid water and watching miles of ­nothing slip by. 
            This routine repeated itself for weeks, until one day in the ­middle of the continent, I approached a turnoff where the highway­ touches the ocean.  Before reaching it however, I cruised along, minding my own business when up ahead, I saw something move ­across the road.  The closer I came, the bigger it grew.  ­Finally, I focused on it.  A Camel! 
        It was a big, shaggy ­camel--out in the middle of nowhere.  He walked up to me, sniffed my pack, then trotted north into the Outback.  Later, I found out ­that more than 35,000 wild camels roamed the desert in Oz.  They ­were brought in from the Middle East for transport trains from­ Adelaide to Alice Springs and on to Darwin, right up the middle of Australia.  When mechanized transport arrived, the camels we re­turned loose in the desert.
            Late in the day, I turned off the road for a short ride to the Great Australian Bight on the coast.  Rugged cliffs offered a­ spectacular view.  It was the only relief I had enjoyed from the ­bush flies for several weeks.  After eating a snack,  I pedaled ­back toward the main road.
            At the juncture of the highway, a large emu stood in my way.  ­He was black feathered, stood five feet tall and weighed more ­than 90 pounds.  The bird walked right up to me, expecting a­ handout.  He had panhandled other tourists who had stopped at these scenic turnouts.  I gave him a piece of my apple.
            After taking a few pictures, I decided to be on my way.  The­ bird began running alongside me.   My bike had eighteen gears, so I started cranking it up the freewheel.  With every increase in speed from me, the emu ran faster.  With nothing else to do, I decided to see how fast the bird could run.  I clicked into high­ gear, and held a good 24 miles per hour for a hundred yards.  It ­didn't faze the emu. 
        He thumped along with me, not even ­breathing hard.  I, however, was gasping and sweating like a ­horse.  Enough of this!  I slowed down to my usual 12 miles per ­hour.  The emu again matched my pace.  What the devil?!  If he didn't mind running alongside, I didn't mind his company.  I­ talked to him--asking him about his family and kids. 
            "How's your mother-in-law?" I asked. "Get along with her pretty well?  How does she deal with this heat?  Any of your kid s­play cricket?"
            After no answer, I continued, "Do you know of any ice cold­ swimming pools around here buddy?  Have any friends who sell Dreamsicles?  Man, could I curl my tongue around a Dreamsicle ­right about now."
            The emu never looked over during the whole conversation, but ­kept perfect stride with me.
            This new partnership continued for 30 miles.  I really­ enjoyed George's (his new name) company.  But it was time to call ­it a day, so I turned off the highway and pitched my tent a ­hundred meters off the road.  George walked into the bush with me­ and stood while I cooked dinner.  I threw him another piece of apple.  An hour later, with the sun set, George's black ­silhouette pressed against the sky as he seemingly stood guard outside my tent. 
             "You don't have to stay here all night George.  Go find­ your friends.  I'm out of apples."
            George didn't budge.  I finished dinner and went to bed with­ him standing outside my tent.  Around three o'clock, I woke up. ­ A glance outside my tent revealed George standing guard.  I felt ­safe.
            Next morning, I woke up with my new friend standing in the ­same spot.
            "G'day George," I said. "This is going to be a test of your character to run 150 kilometers today mate."
            George snaked his beak down to my tent flap.
            "Okay, you want some food," I said. "Just wait till I finish eating, okay?!"
            "Crazy bird," I said, talking to myself. "This is­ outrageous.  I'm out in the middle of nowhere, 12,000 miles from ­home--and here you stand guard over my tent all night--in this one tiny spot on the face of the earth, and all you want is a­piece of apple.  It's a cheap price to pay for your friendship ­George."
            "I couldn't agree with you more," I answered.  "But you­ gotta' work on your vowels my friend."
            I packed my gear and walked out to the road with George ­following.  I fed him a piece of bread.  He again took up his­ effortless stride alongside my bike.  It was like having my own ­dog as my best friend and traveling companion.  After an hour, I stopped for a drink and squirted water into George's face.  He ­pranced around in a circle like a banshee, crowing a weird sound.  ­He loved the water.
            "You're one crazy bird," I said.  "Here, have another shot."
            I squirted a steady stream into his face.  He opened his ­beak and caught the water like a funnel.  It drained down his throat.  When half my bottle was gone, I stopped.  He flapped his­ wings and danced around some more, squawking happily.  He loved ­the attention.  We were buddies.
            Minutes later, I pedaled west, with a blazing sun rising ­high into the sky.  Sweat dripped off my nose and chin onto the tube.  I looked for George, but he wasn't with me.  I looked back.  He was gone. "I'll be darned," I said. "I was enjoying ­George's company."
            I pulled around in a big circle on the highway, but no George was in sight.  The Outback stretched to the four horizons. 
            Some kind of joy faded from my spirit when George quit our ­partnership.  Loneliness crept in again, but I told myself that it was better to have enjoyed him than never to have met him at ­all.  He proved one lesson to me that day--all great journeys through life are better, when shared by two.
            I looked around one more time, but the Outback rippled in the heat waves.  Better get on with it.  I had half a continent ­to go.
Excerpt from Bicycling Around the World: Tire Tracks for Your Imagination by Frosty Wooldridge, , Kindle, copies 1 888 280 7715

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