World By Bike 15: Now it’s a gap year
'And that's all the bags, I'm afraid'.
'But there's at least ten of us here. You mean to say you've lost all the oversized luggage?'
The Australian leg up the east coast from Sydney to Cairns had started well, with Virgin losing all our large baggage items, including my bike. The subsequent meander around town on the Sydney subway system was a little strange, with stations almost a carbon copy of the scenes found on the London commuter route. It was even weirder and incredibly surreal to get a glimpse of the Sydney Opera House, one of the first landmarks I ever learned as a child. I had to shake myself a little, reminding myself that I was now in this scene, and that it wasn't just playing out in front of me.
I spent a few days wandering around the city, trying to get a feel for the place without spending the London-level money most standard tourist experiences and hangouts demand. A couple of really nice people helped me with accommodation, initially staying by the airport, before then moving into the central business district to stay with a wonderfully generous chief petty officer from the Australian Navy, who even let me use his apartment when he was out of town. With his plans to embark on a cycling world tour in the pipeline, and my consideration of the British Navy as part of my medical studies, we could really help each other out. Lindsey and his partner took me out for food and we shared ideas, tips and experiences over a burger and a couple of beers. This community is so cool!
When the time came to leave Sydney, I went by Bondi and Coogee beach to say hello and goodbye to Oli, a friend I'd met on exchange in Canada back in 2015 who had just moved to Sydney to commence his own semester abroad from Ontario to study at the University of New South Wales. I'd met up with him the day after I'd arrived in Sydney and I joined in with all the new exchange students, all from North America who were out here to soak up the Aussie lifestyle and have a great adventure. It's always cool meeting people who're doing that, and enquiring as to their motivations and hopes. Interestingly the overwhelming response that they came to Australia because it was so far away that they were rarely like to visit or live there later in life, much preferring to do that somewhere in Europe. They had elected to study in Sydney as they didn't think they'd create the opportunity later in life for themselves to go. Whilst a few expressed a slight disappointment that they were in a house with all North Americans, you could tell it'd helped them form a tight bond quickly, and we all had great fun at one of the free-to-enter bars on the Bondi beachside.
But now, as the rain descended on Sydney, is was time to head north, past the opera house, over the Sydney Harbour Bridge and into the bushland that surrounds the city. That was easier said than done, almost accidentally riding the freeway over the harbour bridge due to lack of signage. I managed to take refuge on a traffic island before having to back-pedal down the slipway, just metres before I would have become the centre of four lanes crossing the harbour bridge. That could have been interesting and a premature end to the journey up the Aussie east coast.
Successfully navigating the suburbs however, I was invited to spend the night on Dangar Island, a traffic free haven in the middle of the Hawkesbury River, a world-away from the big city. Although it cost me the equivalent of a day and a half on the road to get the 500m long ferry ride to the island, it was worth it to see how life worked on this little island sanctuary. It was just crickets and kookaburra noise, suddenly feeling very Australian.
My host, Barry, joined me for the first 40k of the next day, riding along the deserted Old Pacific Highway and up and over Mount White, on a sweltering day in stark contrast to the drizzle that had followed me from Sydney the day previous. I was just about getting over the hills, and 68-year-old Barry put in a stellar effort to ride alongside before we parted ways. The heat made for a tough day, forcing several breaks upon me before I made it up the coastline to Newcastle. My hosts that night had toured extensively in South Asia and gave me some great advice for the next phase of my journey.
I love meeting people like that, chatting to them and hearing their stories. So many people are quietly going about their lives, but have got these awesome experiences and adventures under their belt. It's weird being humbled and encouraged in your own adventures like that, even more so experiencing that most days. It's a constant reminder to be thankful for the generosity of people you're meeting, and encouraged about the spirit of human endeavour and curiosity. Although each encounter may seem small in the grand scheme of things, each person becomes a character in the story and a motivation, support or helping hand, and all the characters add up to make the trip what it is. I'm making an active effort to be grateful for each person I meet on this trip. It turns out people can be pretty cool, passionate and interesting if you take the time to listen to them, and find the right angle that really gets them talking.
The next few days were predominately highway riding, which, although direct and quick, wasn't the most exciting of riding. It was the first time since I'd left home where there appeared to be missing a slight degree of challenge, or novelty. Australian culture immediately felt quite similar to home, or similar to New Zealand, the risk of bad weather and the cold had subsided, and the east coast is fairly well populated so I felt as though I could always find somewhere to stay easily enough. I suppose it's more of a reflection of the growth I've experienced on this trip, worrying less about things, more confident in my ability to make things work, but I felt it was getting comfortable for the first time. It's nice in one way, but then again I came on this trip to be challenged and stretched.
Luckily, after staying the next night with a dude named Jacob, someone who turned out to be a weapon endurance rider gearing up for the trans-Australia Indy-Pac race, I was introduced to a fellow 23-year-old Brit named Alex, riding around the world in the opposite direction to me. We met up the next day and rode together until Brisbane where he departed for New Zealand, and I'll continue northwards.
Alex had ridden across from Perth having ridden through Europe and Asia to get down under, so we could aid each other with tips and route choices for our respective upcoming legs. I had a great time riding with him, making similar movie references, riding similar speeds and equally frustrated with the headwind that had been blowing down the coast as we headed north. We had camped out on the beach one night, cooking up some pasta on Alex's stove and showering our tents with so much sand that we'll be scooping out grains of the stuff until we get home.
After a couple days of riding together, swimming at the beach in Woolgoolga, and paddling with pelicans in Yamba, we hit Byron Bay and the most easterly point of Australia. In our efforts to reach the sea, and our blockheaded approach to touring, we attempted to carry our bikes along the hiking path to Cape Byron. One local shook his head as he walked past us and told us there were too many steps for us to persist, but we stupidly continued. No one had told us there was a perfectly good road up there. However, our valiant efforts were rewarded when the same local saw us again on his way back from the Cape Byron lighthouse, and started chatting with us. Alex and I dropped in the conversation that we hadn't anywhere to stay, and Andrew, our helpful local, picked up on this and invited us to stay in his warehouse just out of town. Recounting it, it sounds like quite a sketchy offer, but somewhere to stay is somewhere to stay. I'm learning to trust people more, and be bolder in requesting things, for better or for worse.
Alex and I elected to take a rest day in Byron the next day after one of my university friends had invited us to hang around at his hostel in town where he'd paused on his backpacking travels around Australia and South East Asia. It was a fascinating day observing and trying to assimilate into backpacking culture, and it was amazing to get a glimpse of that lifestyle. We met people from all over Europe and North America, out there paying relatively cheap rent and doing local jobs in restaurants or retail to just-about afford the relaxed lifestyle or surfing, drinking and relaxing. Even after just a day in that environment I can see how people can get stuck in that way of living for years. Perhaps 'stuck' is the wrong word, maybe 'enjoyment' is better. It's simply fun to hang out with your mates all day, do a relatively low stress job, and spend the remainder of your time enjoying the sun, drinking at the beach and exploring relationships with fellow travellers (if that's phrased delicately but suggestively enough). Without a great deal of responsibility I can see how you'd never want to leave. You just have to look after you, solely concerning yourself with what the most fun way to fill the day is, and nothing particularly beyond the next 24 hours. It's intoxicating in a way, and I think you'd very quickly just get caught up in a hedonistic lifestyle. Chatting to individuals within the group you hear regularly that they're just trying to enjoy 'the best years of their life' and that they know it won't last forever. It's fascinating. Some people even hinted that there was a degree of guilt they felt every now and again for living that lifestyle, but when they think about moving on it's hard as they want keep the friendships and keep the lifestyle.
I found it really intriguing, because once you enter that lifestyle, it must be incredibly difficult to leverage yourself out of it. You're just fun, doing what you want, relatively stress-free income, and hanging around with people you get on with drinking by the beach. On the surface it sounds great, but I was fascinated by it because it came across with the fact that people knew they couldn't do this forever, or with a slight tinge of guilt in the living the lifestyle, that there is something missing in a responsibility-free life. It's almost like you need something bigger, or a challenge and or something bigger to serve into. Although I totally understand the appeal, and had I stuck around for more than a few days I could have very easily been caught up in the lifestyle, I realised how glad I was that I'm on the path that I'm on and doing this trip and learning the things I'm learning. For example, I feel that one of the main things I've learned whilst travelling (or a word that doesn't sound as cliché, 'exploring'?) is the value of the individual, their story, their daily battles and the inspiration that can be gained from witnessing the character strength required to overcome daily obstacles in pursuit of whatever the goal is. You see people all around the world with such different problems, with basic relationship issues to bigger things like homelessness, poverty or modern slavery. Part of what I feel I've learned is that when you're in a position of strength or in a position where you can support others, you should do so with an open heart and an open mind. Again, perhaps should is the wrong word, but I struggle to see how you can travel, witness the things the world has to offer and not become incredibly grateful for all you have in live, recognise the abundance you experience (relatively) and want to share that. For me, witnessing and hearing about the common struggles of existence, I feel compelled to be able to want to help, and I think when travelling / exploring, I recognised how fortunate I have been in life and therefore want to give to others.
I can just about rationalise this trip by saying that I'm adding strings to my bow through challenge, with the hope of going back home to serve into others, but I think I personally would struggle on a 'backpacker' type trip, to wrongly lump all backpacker trips under one umbrella. But that's my big reflection I think from experiencing that side of travel, albeit briefly. I think before this trip I could have perhaps been more judgemental, and even disapproving of backpacker life as- almost like university but without the work. But I feel now I can look at each person, and try to understand why they're doing what they're doing, investigate, ask questions and not just assume I know something they don't. I'm trying to assume the opposite, that there is something I don't quite understand and try to broaden my horizons, maybe. Asking how some people can live and thrive in a backpacker lifestyle, where some would struggle, and others never even make it out of their front door - investigating but not necessarily then sorting and ranking those experiences.
It was nice to be able to share the thought process with Alex, who seemed similarly intrigued by the difference between bike-packing and backpacking culture. We had a great day in Byron, not only just because it was talking to girls again for the first time in a collective year, but because it was fun, responsibility-free day, no riding. We left Byron, rode up the coast to the outskirts of Brisbane where Alex boarded a plane to New Zealand and I rode across town to meet up with my final known contact in Australia. Alex is a great dude, and it was great fun riding with him. Riding solo again….