Total Distance: 1528km
Apologies for taking a while to publish this blog, but by the end of it you will understand why!
I found my day off in Tibooburra in the extreme northwest corner of New South Wales to be a very interesting, even relaxing break! Founded in 1880 after gold was discovered in the region, the historic town now has a population of about 150. It is the biggest settlement for at least 300km in any direction, it is well-equipped with services such as a medical centre, School of the Air, two roadhouses, a cafe, caravan/campsite and two hotels to service the pastoral and mining industries and now 4WD tourists. Taking a leisurely stroll to explore the town, I was impressed by some of the well kept corrugated houses with gardens and…and even a drive-in theatre!
Perhaps the most iconic building is The Family Hotel, built in 1882. Given the rough type of patrons that would have frequented it over the decades, using the word ‘Family’ for the name for the hotel, seemed unusual to me, however, despite having eighteen owners in its 128 year history, it has always retained ‘Family’ in its title.
Constructed of locally quarried sandstone with a veranda along the front, the hotel has become famous as the outback pub with the murals on the walls. During the 1960s Australian artists Clifton Pugh, Russell Drysdale and others spent several weeks painting in the outback. Using the Family Hotel as a base, and the outback as their inspiration, they added their own style of art to walls within the hotel. Clifton Pugh’s nude murals are not what one would expect to see in The Family Hotel!
It was immediately evident on entering the bar that Family was code for friendliness – everyone is welcome.
At the northern end of the main street is Tibooburra’s Pioneer Park, the centre piece of which is a replica of Explorer, Charles Sturt’s whaleboat. Early European explorers were convinced the Australian continent had an inland sea. In 1844-45, Charles Sturt carried a 27-foot long whaleboat on a wagon across this region, hoping he would be able to sail it across the sea that of course, he never discovered.
The region has great significance as a meeting place for the Wangkumara and Maljangapa people of the desert. As the story goes; “At one time, when all the people came together, two men came down from Innamincka and asked for Rainstones. They were refused and mocked and in revenge sent a hail storm that turned everyone, including themselves, to stone. Today this is remembered in the name, Ti Burra, “the place of stones”.
Leaving Tibooburra, I was excited at the challenge ahead – the toughest section of this journey so far. If all went to plan it would be a 7-day, 720km stint through the Strzelecki desert, along the Old Strzelecki Track to Innamincka, then, if Walker’s Crossing at Cooper Creek was passable, I would cut across to the Birdsville Track to reach Birdsville.
The main route between Tibooburra and Cameron Corner (the surveyor’s landmark where three states meet – NSW, Queensland and South Australia) was a good quality gravel road. I followed this relatively busy road, tracking just south of the Sturt National Park, for 43km. From there we opted for a more interesting, much lesser used 4WD track, Toona Gate Road, crossing the Sturt NP to Toona Gate at the NSW-QLD border then diverting through the fringe of the Strzelecki Desert sand dune country. It’s an alternative, slightly longer route to Cameron Corner.
The track was indeed more remote and enjoyable. Trees were rare across the open expanses of the Sturt NP. The landscape was very green from the recent rains but significant vegetation could only be seen lining the ephemeral waterways. Patches of deep sand would have been a nightmare for a regular mountain bike, but my 10cm-wide tyres together with my all-wheel drive system made it more easily navigable, even if it was still hard work. Approaching Toona Gate at the border, I had to take diversions around the boggy clay pans where the road had been cut off, adding to the distance.
The border is actually a high dingo fence, maintained by wardens who control the fence/border about every 100km (or so – can’t remember exactly). With the COVID-19 state border closures over the last year, some tried this route to avoid the state authorities, but the flooded clay pans stopped them mostly.
By mid-afternoon, I was moving well along the track, crossing small sand ridges, sand drifts and clay pans. I am in my element here. Where water still flooded the track, I could cycle on the tyre tracks around the muddy zone. Some of the clay pans had dried enough for me to follow the track, but were scarred with deep ruts caused by previous vehicles becoming bogged. Sometimes these tracks resembled strings of spaghetti.
At the 88km mark, with about 30km to do that day, I approached a series of deep ruts sculpted in the concrete-like clay. It looked as though I could carefully follow its snaking path, but then it became deeper, narrower and very uneven on the bottom. There was barely room to turn the pedals and the walls of the rut became higher than my pedals. I always keep my pedals very loosely clipped so I can ‘abandon ship’ easily if necessary. But here I could not flick my foot to the side to disengage due to the height and narrowness of the rut. The result, I could not roll as I fell and smacked my right shoulder hard into the concrete-like surface. My right shoulder took the fall, my head hit second, but the helmet did its job.
I was immediately in pain – it took my breath away and I felt weak from the shock. I tried to assess the damage, thinking I could have dislocated my shoulder. I could not raise my arm or pick up the bike. I walked the bike for a bit, resting my arm on the seat. Once I had gathered myself, I worked out I could ride gently with my right arm resting on the handlebar. In retrospect, I don’t know how I did this. The rough road didn’t help, but I wanted to try to reach the team. It felt like they were about 4km away, but I later worked out it was half that distance. As I arrived and started to explain what had happened, I felt my shoulder – the collar bone was almost through the skin – really deformed.
We packed everything, strapped the bike to the front of Neil’s vehicle, found a triangular bandage in the first aid to make a sling and started heading back. Martin decided to call in at Toona Gate House and spoke to Phyllis, the warden who maintained the dingo fence. She had some medical training, (though hadn’t used it recently) and phoned the Royal Flying Doctor Service. The hope was I could be picked up by the RFDS once we reached Tibooburra. She drove with us back to Tibooburra and we waited at The Family Hotel in the warmth of the fire, under a painting of Clifton Pugh!
The RFDS was called out to another accident that was life-threatening, and so we waited, and waited… It was a busy night for the RFDS and in the end we were put up by the hotel. The regional nurse, Vivian, who had been attending a motorbike accident near Wanaaring, arrived after about 11pm. Still no RFDS in the morning, so we drove to Broken Hill, 335km to the south where I could present at Accident and Emergency. The X-rays showed a 3.7cm overlap between the ends of my clavicle and another piece floating.
From Broken Hill I was able to make a plan. I am very lucky to have access to some of the best orthopaedic surgeons in Melbourne (through The Royal Melbourne Tennis Club). I was able to book surgery for this coming Tuesday.
I am also very lucky to have a brilliant support team; Neil and Helen, Martin and Sandra, and committed filmmakers, Gavin, Morgan and Mikey. Everyone has put their plans on hold and I am grateful that I am working with such a capable and adaptable team!
The general prognosis is that it may take about 8 weeks to heel for the type of cycling I do, 4-6 weeks longer for real tennis. Now that I have some perspective and a rough plan, I am viewing this episode as a part of the journey – the accident, surgery and recovery are all a part of my path, cycling Across Australia. I will know more after the surgery though.
Another upside is that I filmed my fall and aftermath on my action camera – it is graphic!
Here’s the journey so far: