25th-27th May
Melbourne to Alice Springs (driving 2500km)
Welcome to the first blog for my third expedition of 2018, Following the Finke River, in Central Australia. So far I have completed an unsupported cycle ride down the Baja Peninsula (North America) in February followed by a polar training trip in Iceland (Europe) in March.
My vision for this whole project is to complete a challenging preparatory expedition on each continent, culminating with making the first bicycle crossing of Antarctica via the South Pole; the expeditions being integral with the Breaking the Cycle Education curriculum.
I am both excited and petty exhausted because, while we are about to embark on a unique sand cycling expedition along what is probably the world’s oldest river and create a real Australian story, I am also completely exhausted due to the hectic lead up – not just organising the logistics of this expedition, but also keeping an eye on the big picture of Breaking the Cycle South Pole (fund raising and planning), other preparatory expeditions, developing the education programme and working as a senior professional at the Royal Melbourne Tennis Club. Crazy times!
But this expedition is really special in my heart; a totally original sand cycling expedition and a journey back in time through the heart of the Australian outback.
The ephemeral Finke River, or Larapinta to the local Arrernte people, begins in the West MacDonnell Ranges and carves a convoluted path through spectacular prehistoric gorges before meandering across the desert and disappearing into the sands of the Simpson, about 700km from it’s source.
Parts of the course of the Finke River near the source in the West MacDonnell Ranges, are older than the range itself (approximately 320 million years old). It was there when the ranges were pushed up, before the dinosaurs, when the Earth’s land masses were united to form the Pangea super-continent.
The sandy river bed has been an important trade route for the Arrernte in eons past, but no one has ever cycled its course (during the Dry season). Using ‘Greeny’, the second of my all-wheel drive fatbikes (first used in Northeast Greenland; a prototype developed for Antarctica), the expedition will be part bike-packing and part supported to ensure safety and to capture the highest quality content. We will carry a BGAN Hughes 9211 device so we can communicate effectively during the two week journey, and I can stream live to students in North America for the educational organisation, Exploring by the Seat of Your Pants..
Cycling in sand is excellent physical and mental preparation for Antarctica. Negotiating soft, unstable surfaces requires immense core strength and concentration. Different techniques are used compared with cycling on regular paved and gravel surfaces.
The team for this expedition includes experienced support vehicle driver, Bob Carr and filmmaker, Brian Cohen from Umbershoot, Melbourne. Please check out https://www.breakingthecycle.education/expeditions/following-the-finke-river/ to find out more about Brian and Bob, both passionate about the outback and inspired to be a part of this adventure.
We aim to include indigenous stories, culture, artwork and present day issues into the story and relate to students around the world.
To reach Alice Springs, the centre nearest to the start of the expedition, it is a 2,500km, three day drive from Melbourne. On the first day I drove 600km to Mildura (northeast Victoria), met Bob (who began his journey the day before from the coast east of Canberra), and together we drove as far as Renmark on the Murray River in northeast South Australia.
Over the last two days, Bob and I have driven more than 800km each day to reach Alice Springs. The first part of Day 2 was a 400km trip from Renmark on the Murray River, picking up the Goyder Highway that follows two large water pipes and an older open aqueduct which funnel water from the Murray River. We worked our way through productive farmland, and the beautiful, well-kept historic town of Burra, famous for the saltbush-fed merino sheep it produces, through the Bald Hills Range and on to Port Augusta at the head of Spencer Gulf.
From there we picked up the Stuart Highway that virtually bisects the country. On leaving Port Augusta, our new Hema HX-1 navigation device reminded us that it would be a further 1210km before it was required to give another instruction! There are not many places in the world that this would happen.
The few scrubby trees that dotted the landscape soon phased out and the Nullarbor-like expanses I found to be a de-stressing tonic. Distant buttes were pretty much the only features in the landscape as we pushed into a strong cross-headwind. On each day I took the wheel for about 150km or so to give Bob a break. The LandCruiser sits nicely on the road, though the height of our load made it more of a challenge due to the wind resistance. After about 800km we turned off on a side track and camped about a kilometre off the highway. It was brilliant to set up camp in the pristine bush and relax beside a roaring campfire.
Overnight there was a brief thunderstorm and the showers continued on and off during the morning. We were treated to some spectacular skies all day. First stop was the famous opal mining town of Coober Pedy for breakfast and a refuel. For many kilometres north of the town the landscape was pimpled with countless mounds that are the result of noodling – fossicking for opals.
Soon after, more features started to appear in the landscape; break-aways, jump-ups and gradually more trees. By the time we reached Marla, last stop before crossing into the Northern Territory, we were travelling through mulga scrub. The final 200km was spectacular with rugged weathering ranges, groves of desert oaks and ephemeral waterways.
About 120km before Alice Springs we reached the Finke River crossing and of course stopped to get our first glimpse of the river which I will follow for it’s entire 700km course. Greg Yeoman and I camped about 200m south of the bridge during our Great Australian Cycle Expedition in 2004. It was then that I first understood the importance of the mostly dry river bed and it was then the seed for this upcoming expedition was planted.
Once in Alice Springs we headed straight for our accommodation. Brian, who had flown from Melbourne this morning, was waiting to meet us. It was an exciting moment when the three of us came together for the first time. We are all passionate about the outback and I felt proud that these two had committed to joining this expedition. There is a lot of trust because we had virtually not met before; Brian had put his hand up to be involved about a month ago when a mutual friend asked around to find a filmmaker. Similarly, Bob answered the call when Todd Tai, chair of the ANZEC Explorers’ Club asked around. I had not met Bob face to face until Mildura and today was the first time he had met Brian. There is a lot of trust between us and we share the excitement of the potential story that is about to unfold.