Leaving ordinary life behind

 

Leave ordinary life behind … that’s what they ask you to do when you land at Maria Island. And it’s an easy thing to do.

Maria Island is a Unesco World Heritage site. It’s a carefree, car-free haven for walking, biking, camping and watching wildlife with not a single shop, cafe or ice-cream kiosk in sight.

We loved leaving ordinary life behind so much that we decided to camp on for a second night … stretching out the pasta, chicken, cereal and red wine that we’d brought with us.

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A wombat, yes … but can you spot the kangaroo?

We loved watching wallabies, wombats and the strange looking Cape Barren geese grazing around our tent as we cooked. And we absolutely loved stumbling across a herd of over 50 kangaroos quietly grazing on a headland against the setting sun.

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Cape Barren goose

We heard (but didn’t see) Tasmanian devils shrieking at night. It was fortunate that they weren’t too close as the rangers had told us to cover up our bike saddles so little devils couldn’t eat them. 

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The bins are devil protectors

The island has a colourful human history too. It endured two brief periods as a penal colony for reoffenders but was closed in favour of the more secure Port Arthur after repeated escapes.

An ill-fated attempt by a colourful Italian entrepreneur called Diego Bernacchi to develop industry, agriculture and tourism didn’t last either. His large cement works once supported over 500 people with hotels, shops and a tramline. It never came close to break-even and collapsed in the 1930’s Great Depression.

This has left an eclectic mix of ruined buildings on the island.

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A small museum vividly brings to life the experiences of the people who lived there, incarcerated and free. One diarist was William Smith O’Brien, an Irish MP and leader of the Young Irish movement that fought against the potato famine and other injustices. He was imprisoned here in 1849, before being sent to Port Arthur and eventually pardoned some 7 years later.

As well as describing a failed escape attempt on a whaling boat he laments at being cast so far away from his loved ones. So far that he was on a small island, off the coast of an island which was itself off the coast of Australia.

We could sense his isolation.

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These were our last few nights camping as we’re sending our stuff back to Melbourne before we head to the colder mountains in the west.

Camping on Maria Island has made buying and carrying all that gear worthwhile. The tent is a great design and the sleeping bags are warm and cosy. But the air mattresses are seriously embarrassing in the stillness of the night. They squeak so loudly whenever we roll over or so much as move a muscle.

As a man of a certain age, Andy is forced to go to the loo once or twice a night. Not known for his agility, this becomes quite a performance especially with the noisy mattresses. It’s no wonder the devils stayed away from us!

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Painted Cliffs

Fortunately on clear moonless nights the stars have added to his relief. The night sky seems so much more intense down here … especially the Southern Cross and the wide sweep of the Milky Way, a pearly rainbow from one horizon to the other. 

We recently learnt the reason for this. In the southern hemisphere you look down into the centre of the Milky Way, whereas in the north, you’re looking out to it’s edge.

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Saying goodbye to Maria Island on the early ferry, we headed south across country to the small village of Dunalley. This turned into one of those cycling days that are more than we bargained for.

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We were warned!

It was actually over 50km of cycling on ’ripio’ gravel roads! And the road went uphill! And it rained! And Clare got stung by a wasp (presumably one that had followed us expecting yet more honeydew)! 

But … she stayed impressively cheerful as you can see from these pictures, just very relieved to be back on firm, black tarmac.

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Clare at the beginning of the ‘ripio’
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Clare at the end of the ‘ripio’

The wildlife surprised us yet again. We turned a corner and disturbed a large flock of bright green and red parrots who launched themselves up into the sky in a colourful, noisy, irritable carnival. Later it happened again, this time with scores of white cockatoos swirling in front of us like confetti.

A sadder feature of this road was that there was even more roadkill than usual, in various states of decay … small kangaroos, wallabies, possums and (just once) a snake. It made for a pretty stinky ride!

Roadkill is much more noticeable on Tasmanian roads than on the ‘mainland’, but the locals tell us that this also proves the populations are healthy.

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Another feature of country roads are the house numbers. Anyone fancy living at number 29762? The next house a few kilometres down the road might be 25640. This seems confusing until you discover that a new number is allocated every 10 metres.

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This house is therefore 297.6km from the end of the road in Hobart … a handy way of measuring our progress.

At the end of this particular gravel road was a welcome B&B in a lovely old colonial house. We’ve noticed a few interesting touches that seem to be particular to Tasmania B&B’s … heating lamps in the bathroom ceilings, washing machines and a complimentary decanter of sherry and port to “help you sleep”.

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From Dunalley we rode along the coast to Richmond, a pretty town famous for being the site of Australia’s oldest bridge (convict built of course). Then onto Hobart where our son Chris has joined us for a few days rest and recreation.

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Richmond bridge

Next up is the challenge of the mountainous, wet n’wild West Coast and the road up to Cradle Mountain, the highest point on our circuit.

The weather has turned and there’s a storm on the horizon. Winter is coming!

It doesn’t look like life for the next two weeks will be ordinary at all.

Clare and Andy

Many roads to paradise

Tasmania is a gem … Clare was right! It’s a simply stunning island to cycle around.

As David, our B&B host in Launceston said … “your first few days in the North East will take you through some of the most spectacular scenery on the island. No … some of the most spectacular scenery in Australia. After that it just gets better and better!”

He was not wrong.

The ever changing cinematic view from our handlebars has been both varied and delightful.

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We rolled off the ferry in Devonport at 6am on a misty Friday morning and were relieved to find a bakery serving coffee and huge Aussie croissants. Three hours later and slightly over-caffeinated we decided we couldn’t put off climbing onto our bikes any longer. 

Within a few minutes we were out into big open farmland and wide horizons, the road gently undulating as we headed towards the hills in the distance.

img_0393As most of the heavy traffic takes the highway through the centre of the island, there were very few trucks (hooray!) Some even slowed down a little to pass us.

These roads are for locals and for tourists, which means lots of caravans and motorhomes. It’s ideal motorcycling country and there are large groups of bikers touring the island, all zooming past with a throaty roar and a cheery wave.

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The road then took us down the Tamar valley to Launceston through the heart of Tasmanian wine country, famous for its Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris.

At Scottsdale we picked up the old North East Railway, now a cycling trail that winds its way gently up to Billycock Hill, 342m above sea level. Sweeping bends never exceed the 2.8% the maximum gradient for a steam train as the trail climbs through a beautiful eucalyptus forest.

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The North East Rail Trail

Later that same day we climbed again to Weldborough. This time more steeply through rich, verdant rain forest thick with tree ferns and knarled, ancient trees.

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Up through the rain forest

After a wet but fun evening with a group of bikers in the Weldborough Tavern, we descended through cattle country until we reached the coast at St Helens. From there it was mile after mile of beautiful coast road, punctuated by small climbs across granite headlands, then down to deserted white sand beaches each lapped by a gin-clear sea.

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Small fishing communities break up this coast offering a good choice of places to stay. But it’s a coast that will forever stay sea-salted and under-developed as it’s protected by a crystal clear, but very cold sea.

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After a week and 400km of pedalling, we reached the jewel in the crown … the unspoilt peninsula of Freycinet National Park at Coles Bay. Here we were lucky enough to find a camping spot at Richardson’s beach (so popular they’re allocated by a ballot in the school holidays) where we threw off our sweaty cycling gear, ran down some private steps to a picture perfect oval beach and plunged into the water.

Then gasped … and quickly ran back out again!

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Camping at Richardson’s Beach
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Wineglass Bay in Freycinet National Park

The cycling has been quite challenging. Anyone who says the East Coast of Tasmania is flat is not telling the whole story!

The land folds itself down to the sea, creating all those pretty bays and headlands but this means that the roads either roll up or roll down again. It’s a good thing as each small hill enhances the view. But it also means a four hour ride feels like four hours of interval training.

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Clare interval training to music

Not all our camping has been as pleasant as Richardson’s beach. At Weldborough it rained hard all night. Then in Swansea we came into much closer contact with nature than we’d bargained for.

We camped in a field under a lonely tree and returned from our harbour-side fish supper to find a brushtail possum hanging upside and feasting on it’s lower branches, just inches from our tent.  It stayed there munching for several hours … and was not a quiet eater.

During the night we noticed a spattering noise, like the sound of gentle rain. This was confusing as it was a dry clear night … but, in the morning our tent was covered in water droplets. We thought it must be dew and left the tent to dry in the sun.

Just as we noticed that the droplets were hardening into a kind of resin the wasps arrived. Ten … twenty … forty … all greedily feasting on these lumps of nectar that now covered the entire tent.

Was it sap from the tree?

No … it turns out the tree was infested by aphids and this was honeydew … the sugary, sticky liquid that aphids excrete as they chew the leaves.

To wasps it is the milk of paradise and they were having a party!

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Two of many feasting wasps
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Trying to shake the wasps off

We’re not sure whether Samuel Coleridge was referring to wasps or not in his famous poem, Kubla Khan, but it feels like he might have been …

And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
Their flashing eyes, their floating hair!
Weave a circle round them thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For they on honeydew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.
Kubla Khan by Samuel Coleridge (slightly modified)

We didn’t stop to weave any circles. We just stuffed the tent in its bag and pedalled out of there as fast as we could.

When we got the tent out the next day, to soak away the honeydew in warm water, half a dozen wasps fell out. All alive, they were now miles from home but they had such a satisfied expression on their faces … we knew they didn’t care.

Clare and Andy

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Aussie humour is alive and well!

Around and round and up and down we go again

Thanks to you we’ve twisted and are now safely in Tasmania. Phew!

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I loved all your comments, many thanks for your support. Much to my surprise the vote was almost unanimous, with just one (male) exception! I can’t agree more that we should get away from those long roads and huge trucks. It was also great to hear about the highlights of Tasmania from those of you who have already been here.

Let’s twist again
Like you did last summer
Yeah, let’s twist again
Like you did last year
Well, around and round and up and down
We go again
Come on baby make me know you love me so again
Chubby Checker

By the time we boarded the ferry Andy was genuinely excited about going to Tasmania and our new adventure ahead.

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We’ve been arguing about what constitutes a journey. The English Oxford Dictionary says it’s ‘travelling from one place to another’ and this is Andy’s argument too … you have to go from A to B.

But in my opinion it’s just as valid to go ‘around and round’ from A to A. If you lay out a piece of string along our route through Tasmania it looks like a circle. But if you pull that string tight it becomes a straight line which makes it a journey!

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We’ll be going clockwise

What have I let myself in for? Tasmania is actually a much bigger challenge than Melbourne to Sydney. Mountains dominate the western side of the island but there are some serious hills in the North East too.

Lots of ‘up and down to go again’!

I honestly don’t think Andy realised how difficult it was going to be. He kept telling me that Tasmania was “only about the same size as Wales”. I was so confident it was bigger that I made a bet with him … and even upped the stakes.

It turns out TASMANIA IS OVER 3 TIMES BIGGER THAN WALES!

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Last day in Melbourne

What turned out to be our warm-up ride out of Melbourne and back again took us 380km with over 4000m of climbing. And due to the bush fires we never did make it to Wilsons Promontory so took an inland route instead.

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We reached the point of no return in a tiny village called Koonwarra, which lies on the 72km Victoria Southern Rail cycling trail. If we’d turned right down the trail we’d have gone to Sydney. Left to go back to Melbourne.

Thankfully it had one of the nicest cafes we’ve ever cycled past so at least we had good coffee to help make the decision.

We turned left and were soon heading west along this quiet and delightful trail.

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The Southern Rail cycle track

Sadly, it didn’t last!

In his efforts to avoid the main highway, Andy took us cross-country on some quieter country roads that he’d spotted on ViewRanger. Some of these were nice but others turned out to be the dreaded gravel ripio, built for the remote Victorian faming community. It was a nasty reminder of some parts of Chile.

They were so corrugated that at one point both Andy’s panniers crashed off the back of his bike as he careered over some bumps too quickly.

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While he was picking them up, a lovely local lady in a big 4×4 stopped to ask me “what on earth we were doing there?”  She’d never seen anyone trying to ride a bike on these roads before.

In contrast to the searing temperatures of a few days earlier, the weather that day was decidedly cool and very windy.

Storms blew up out of nowhere. One minute, we were happily cycling along. A few seconds later we’re sheltering in a hedge from gale force winds and scarily large hail stones. The storms passed quickly but did not add to the fun in any way.

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They were big hailstones, honest

During our tour of Victoria, I’d noticed that so many places are named after English towns. We’ve been to Brighton, Sandringham, Cheltenham, Hampton, Hastings and Shoreham to name but a few. Phillip Island must have originally been settled by folk from the Isle of Wight … Cowes, Rhyll and Ventnor.

Now we’re in Tasmania, I’m looking forward to visiting Launceston, Exeter, Derby, St Helens and Swansea.

Clare

 

Clare is often right and she certainly was this time! Already I’m loving Tasmania and looking forward to exploring this fascinating island.

Thanks for helping me see that it’s more important to relax and have fun than to complete a journey!

Andy

Stick or Twist?

We have a mutiny on our saddles.

True … it’s not quite on the scale of Fletcher Christians Mutiny-on-the-Bounty, but it is a mutiny just the same.

After months of researching the route from Melbourne to Sydney, of downloading vast numbers of maps from ViewRanger, of checking how many climbs, how many kilometres each day … Clare has suggested we might cycle 1200km (750 miles) around Tasmania instead.

And we’ve even cycled towards Sydney for a couple of days!

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Credit: Discovery Holiday Parks

Like many people before her, Clare was inspired by a boat. It was the sight of The Spirit of Tasmania ferry chugging out of Melbourne harbour that got her thinking …

  1. It’s a bloody long way to Sydney … and she’s not training for an Ironman.
  2. People telling us that Tasmania is their favourite part of Australia.
  3. Andy’s near miss with a ‘road-train’ truck.

The road-train incident was genuinely scary. On a narrow country road, one of these massive beasts passed within a few inches of Andy at extremely high speed, causing him to wobble dangerously in it’s wake. 

Had the driver bothered to look at the angry cyclist in his rear view mirror, it’s fair to say he would have had no doubt about how Andy felt.

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A ‘Double’ Road Train.  Credit: Scott Bourne

Cycling in Australia seems to be more challenging than other countries we’ve toured through. 

Cities are brilliant with loads of dedicated cycling lanes. But outside the cities there’s often only one busy main road between distant towns. There isn’t the network of quiet country roads that cyclists love.

On our travels, we’ve found the Irish to be the most patient drivers with cyclists. So far I’m afraid we’ve found Australians to be amongst the least tolerant, often seeing no need to slow down or deviate even slightly. 

This is particularly true of truck drivers … they ‘own the road’ and they know it. To be fair, they don’t pass many foolhardy touring cyclists on their long, dull journeys. 

But it seems that snakes and spiders are not our biggest danger after all.

It’s the truck drivers!

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Riding out of Melbourne was beautiful, gliding around Port Phillip Bay on a lovely coastal cycle path. It was easily the hottest day we’ve ever experienced on a bike, peaking at over 40°C (104°F). We both drank more than 6 litres of water but still didn’t need to pee for 24 hours. When we stopped for lunch we just wanted to rub ourselves down with towels and ice cubes.

After 70km of sweaty peddling, we were very happy to board the small, local ferry across to Phillip Island and cool down in the gentle sea breeze.

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On the ferry to Phillip Island

Phillip Island is home to the nightly Penguin Parade. Hundreds of Little Penguins, just one foot tall, commute back to their burrows at dusk after a busy day fishing. It was delightful to see these cute little creatures tumbling out of the sea and waddling back to their mates.

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Little Penguins   Credit: Phillip Island Nature Parks

As we rode along the coast the next day, we began to appreciate how big and  dry Australia is. We noticed a huge cloud forming inland. It turned out this was caused by a number of bushfires merging together. They are often started by lightening strikes from the dry storms (no rain) that build up in the intense heat.

It’s an increasing and dangerous problem across Australia.

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Credit: The Guardian

One such lightening strike had hit Wilson’s Promontory National Park, one of the most spectacular parts of the Victorian coastline and a highly anticipated highlight on our ride to Sydney. 

The resulting bushfire meant that 300 campers had to be evacuated. It’s serious enough to keep the park closed for two weeks but we’re glad to say that the fire looks like it will be controlled before it causes to much damage to this pristine wilderness.

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Sunset across the estuary at Inverloch

Instead, we stayed an extra night at a lovely campsite in Inverloch, just metres from a beautiful, empty beach that led out to a wide estuary.

The camping has been great. The equipment is working well and we’re relishing the outdoor life that we miss when we only stay in hotels or B&B’s.

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Camping just behind the sand dunes

Because of the bushfire, we’re now no longer going to Wilsons Promontory. But where are we going? Sydney or Tasmania?

Here are Clare’s arguments for a tour around Tasmania:

  • It’s one of the great cycling destinations … lots of people cycle around Tasmania and very few cycle from Melbourne to Sydney (there must be a reason for that!)
  • The scenery is stunning
  • We’ve never been there
  • We’ll have two trips on an iconic ferry
  • It’s great for camping
  • It won’t be as hot and sweaty for cycling
  • There are less long, dull roads
  • There are less big trucks
  • There are less snakes and spiders
  • The bushfire on Wilsons Promontory was a bad omen

And here are Andy’s arguments for cycling to Sydney:

  • It’s the original plan
  • It’s a proper journey (not a circle)
  • It might be a bit cold in Tasmania

What do you think we should do? Should we stick or twist?

Clare and Andy

Cycling Down Under

“How about a cycling adventure on every continent?”

“What, even the really cold ones?”

“No, no … of course not. We’ve cycled in Europe and South America. How about Asia, Australasia, Africa, North America? Think how amazing that would be.”

We were sitting in a restaurant in Puerto Montt last March, at the end of our 1,478km trip through the centre of Chile and across the Andes to Argentina.

To be completely honest, Clare’s new found adventurous spirit came as a bit of a shock. It was only the week before that, after hours of grinding along the famous South American ripio (gravel roads), she’d emphatically declared that she was NEVER EVER going on a bike tour again! 

It’s amazing what a large glass of wine and a sense of achievement can do.

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Melbourne

So here we are in Australia, in Melbourne to be precise.

Our plan is to cycle to Sydney through 1600km (1000 miles) of remote countryside and coast roads.

Why have we chosen Australia? 

Because our son, Chris, is studying in Melbourne for a year so it’s a great opportunity to visit him and tick off another continent at the same time. Our daughter Sarah was able to join us for a couple of weeks and the four of us had great fun together exploring the Great Ocean Road, the Barossa Wine Valley, the Grampians and Adelaide … travelling in the relative comfort of a huge motorhome.

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Sarah & Chris
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12 Apostles on the Great Ocean Road
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Camping with Kanaroos in the Grampians
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Adelaide Fringe Festival

Now it’s time for the cycling … and the camping. You may recall that we experimented with camping during our car-biking trip to Ireland in August using some heavy, old gear.

It wasn’t an unqualified success as it was very cold and windswept. Andy barely slept as every airbed he had pulled out of the corner of the garage deflated during the night.

But we’ve taken the plunge and invested in some super-lightweight camping gear. A lightweight tent, 2 lightweight mats, 2 lightweight sleeping bags plus a lightweight stove, pots and pans, plates etc. etc. 

It turns out that super-lightweight equals super-expensive so we will have to camp at least half the nights, just to make our investment worthwhile.

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We’ll miss our big motorhome

Does a plan to complete a bike ride on every continent make us proper touring cyclists? There’s no getting away from it … proper touring cyclists camp.

The biggest challenge has been squeezing all this extra gear into two panniers each. There’s a lot less room for the other stuff. Clare has found this particularly frustrating but she has reduced and reduced and then reduced some more … even decanting a few toiletries into tiny bottles and spices into small bags.

Regular readers of this blog will be pleased to hear that some old favourites are still with us. Andy’s favourite cycling shorts have been carefully repaired so no longer need safety pins to hold them up and Clare has bought a new, smaller hair roller … although it’s still a poor substitute for the lightweight solar powered hairdryer that she’d really like.

Before we came here, lot’s of people warned us that it can be difficult to bring bikes into the county. The government are rightly cautious about the risk of soil diseases entering Australia on dirty bike tyres. We heard horror stories of bikes being stripped down in customs and each part being soaked in a powerful detergent.

This meant that we were more than a little nervous when we picked up our bikes at the airport and headed for customs. But no worries! Just a cheery … “Have you given them a wash then mate?” … and we were waved through.

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We’ve also been warned about the notorious creepy crawlies, especially camping in remote places. 

Apparently the whole country is writhing with highly venomous snakes that harbour a particular hatred for both cyclists and campers. And poisonous spiders that love to lurk under a saddle waiting for a juicy bottom.

It’s true … Australia is home to 21 of the world’s 25 most venomous snakes and a whole range of poisonous spiders. Andy has promised to shake out the shoes and check under the saddles every morning.

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It’s not only snakes and spiders that are dangerous

Since arriving in Melbourne, we’ve noticed that people talk about the weather almost as much as we Brits do. They proudly tell us that it changes so often, they regularly experience all four seasons in a single day.

Right now we’re enjoying perfect blue skies every day. But with huge changes in temperature. One day it’s a pleasant 24°C (75°F), perfect for late summer. The next day the mercury shoots up to a sweltering 38°C (100°F)! 

That’s really hot, for mad dogs and Englishmen!

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Melbourne beach huts

Apparently, the high pressure that’s sitting over this part of Australia nudged over a bit towards New Zealand. This caused the winds to switch around. Instead of drifting up from the cool southern ocean they blew down from the red hot centre.

It’s set to stay that hot for the next few days which means we’ll be cycling out of Melbourne towards Philip Island and Wilsons Promontory in a furnace. 

Maybe the heat will do us in before the deadly critters?

Clare and Andy