A few people have asked me for some tips on how to stay safe, healthy and happy while cycling with your husband in a place like South East Asia.
I’ve had plenty of time to think about this whilst peddling across rural NE Cambodia and, in the last few days, pushing my bike up a seemingly endless 1200m climb in Laos (we’ll tell this story in our next blog post).
So here are my tips:
Tips to say safe
Follow Andy’s rules of the roads. This has surprised me as my natural instinct is to stop whenever I sense danger. Here, I’ve become a road warrior, maintaining speed and direction … and never ever stopping.
Don’t let him take side roads unless you can see tarmac. They’ll either be rocky and bottom-pummelling or sandy and dusty. A passing truck will inevitably cover you in a gritty cloud of red dust.
Start cycling at sunrise to avoid the midday sun. So far, the intense heat has curdled my shampoo and heated my water bottle enough to brew a decent cup of tea. It’s also a beautiful time of day and there’s usually far less traffic on the road.
Use suntan lotion sparingly. It was impossible to buy more in rural Cambodia as the locals don’t use it. I’m not even sure they know what it is as people found it very funny when we put some on.
Respect local customs. Covering up your shoulders and knees in rural areas and at temples is polite, even when it’s 33 degrees.
Make him ride in-between you and any dogs. I was chased 3 times before he realised it was his manly duty to protect me.
Tips to stay healthy
Persuade him to take a rest. A few days pottering around the 4000 Islands in southern Laos on the mighty Mekong was restful, replenishing and reflective.
Don’t expect to always get a perfect coffee. Sometimes it comes with condensed milk that sits at the bottom of the cup. Just be grateful you’re having a coffee break at all.
Drink lots of water. Tap water is not safe and whilst refillable water stations are becoming more popular, they’re not yet freely available. Sadly, plastic waste is a real and obvious problem. It feels weird buying a big bottle of water and immediately pouring it into our cycling bidons.
Drink fresh coconut water whenever it’s available … it’s delicious and refreshing! Bottled fruit drinks are usually sticky and very sweet but Japanese green tea flavoured with honey & lemon has become another favourite.
Eat bananas. They’ve become our staple cycling snack. You can only buy them in big bunches … but he can manage the extra weight in his panniers.
Eat well … today’s food is tomorrow’s fuel. We’ve found the food in all three countries to be really good. Local family-run places offering home cooked meals are often better than bigger (more expensive) restaurants.
Tips to stay happy
Mentally add at least 20% extra to the distance and elevation he’s suggesting for the days ride. That way you won’t have a meltdown when there’s still 10km uphill or off-road to go.
Take public transport if the distance and elevation he’s suggesting is too much.
Get to know the currency. There are no coins in Vietnam, Cambodia or Laos and the notes look very similar especially when they’re well worn. The 50,000 Laos Kip note (about £4.50) looks almost the same as the 5000 Kip note (45p). Andy has got it embarrassingly wrong a few times!
Stick on your headphones when the going gets tough. Gazing out at beautiful scenery is wonderful, but it’s not beautiful all the time. When it becomes less interesting or your backside starts aching, you need a distraction. A podcast or talking book works for me.
Make sure there’s a decent shower to get rid of the dust wherever you stay. We’ve slept in a wide variety of places from homestays to luxurious hotels (very good value at the moment because of the coronavirus). Often the cheapest is the best … right now we’re in a typical Laos room on stilts in a lovely guesthouse for £7/night.
Travel light. A good thing about travelling in warm climates is that your clothes dry really quickly. I’m getting used to wearing the same things again and again so next time I’ll try to bring even less. A hotel hairdryer remains a nice surprise but is no longer a necessity – my pink hair roller still does the job well!
And finally … join your husband for a cold beer at the end of the day. It’s tastes great here and is usually the cheapest drink on the menu!
After all … there’s no gain without pain. And he’s still the best cycling buddy a wife could want!
Little people running out to us, waving, jumping up and down, huge smiles lighting up the dusty, parched landscape.
Followed by noisy, excited laughter, gossip of what they’d said and how they’d waved to these two strangers from another world.
This was our soundtrack from thousands of children as we slowly pedalled by.
We were cycling along Route 64, a recently paved road that winds it’s way 300km across the remote north east of Cambodia from Siem Reap (home of the famous Angkor temples) to Stung Treng … our gateway to Laos.
It’s a rough, rural landscape that mixes open scrubland with smallholdings growing crops – cassava, peppers, bananas, sugar cane, mangoes, coconuts.
We were rarely alone. Houses are strung out on both sides of this dusty road. As well as the children, we were greeted by women chopping cassava to dry on the roadside or by young men passing by in two-wheeled tractors.
Best of all was a father bringing a tiny child out to wave back at us and join in the fun. Or four children passing by on a motor scooter (the oldest driving but not yet a teenager) giggling “heyoooooo” in unison.
Cycling is the only way to have this kind of experience … walking is too slow, a motorbike is too fast, a car too enclosed and a bus is too busy.
There is relatively little fast moving traffic on Route 64, especially east of the Mayan looking 10th century temples at Koh Ker. Most common are hawkers on scooters pedalling vegetables, eggs, salted fish, household items, ice-cream or huge blocks of ice … each with their distinctive call sign.
Sounds like cycling heaven? Nearly, but not quite. It’s hot and dusty at this time of year and small towns that might have places to stay are spaced further apart than we would ideally like.
This meant we needed to cycle just over 100km from Siem Reap to reach Koh Ker, our first destination. Most of it was slightly uphill, which would have been fine had we not been surprised by a persistent headwind.
This wasn’t an Irish gale. It wasn’t even a stiff breeze. But it was the kind of wind that makes smoke lean sideways. Enough to make you feel that you’re pushing the air aside as you ride through it. And it never stopped!
Luckily, there were lots of places to pause and rest. Nearly every house is a shop of sorts, selling petrol in old water bottles, strange snacks and best of all … fresh coconut water. Delicious and cool, it slipped down like a reviving nectar.
Much to the locals surprise, we drank a whole coconut each, about half a litre. They had no idea how dehydrating it is to cycle into a warm wind all day. As the day wore on, our stops became more frequent … every 25km, then 15km, then struggling to make 10km.
The following day was a manageable 65km from Koh Ker to the county town of Preah Vihear. Then we faced a choice … cycle 140km to Stung Treng in one day, stay overnight at the only guesthouse in a small town called Chhaeb (Google review – “only stay there if you have to”) … or find alternative transport.
The minivans that serve as buses couldn’t squeeze us in. So without any expectations, we wandered down to the local taxi rank to see what we could find.
Leaving the next morning at sunrise in Atith’s taxi was possibly the best $30 we’d ever spent. He dropped us off a few kilometres beyond Chhaeb with a pleasant 70km still to cycle. As we put the front wheels back on our bikes in the middle of nowhere, Atith could not hide his amusement at these strangers from another world. He found the whole thing hilarious!
But it turned a tough day into a really enjoyable day.
It also shows how much we’ve changed over the years, especially Andy. We’re now more interested in the experience than the journey. And as longtime readers will know, we’ve never claimed to be real touring cyclists!
What’s in a letter?
Angkor with an ‘o’ means ‘city’ and is the name of the great civilization of the Khmer kings who ruled Cambodia from the 802 to 1432.
Angkar with an ‘a’ means ‘the organisation’ and is the name the Khmer Rouge used for its own leadership.
Angkor is the country’s national pride and celebrated everywhere, on the national flag, on money, as the leading brand of beer.
Angkar is Cambodia’s deep trauma.
We came to learn a little of both of them.
We’re not qualified to comment on the terrible atrocities the Khmer Rouge regime inflicted on the Cambodian people from 1975-79, except to say that it still feels recent and raw.
The two sites we visited were both simply and sympathetically presented. Much is left as it was found and visitors are guided by an excellent audio system that tells the story and creates an atmosphere of quiet reflection.
No-one was taking lots of photographs on the days we were there.
First to the notorious S-21 security prison. Housed in an old school at Tuol Sleng, an estimated 20,000 victims were incarcerated and brutally tortured until they made false confessions. There were only 12 known survivors each because they had a skill that was useful to their captors.
Then to Choeung Ek, one of 300 ‘Killing Fields’ spread across the country. The people in S-21 were taken here in the middle of the night for execution, made to kneel down beside an open grave and killed with a rough agricultural tool as bullets were too noisy and too precious.
Estimates vary but roughly 2 million people died, a quarter of the population.
We travelled from the 320km from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap by bus to avoid several days of cycling up a busy, featureless main road. This was by far the most hassle free bus journey we’ve ever made with our bikes which were safely stowed in the hold without the need for packaging or removal of wheels.
Cycling around the Angkor complex of temples was pure delight.
It’s a vast area, a city that boasted a population of around 1 million people at a time when London was a small town of 50,000. Most of them were engaged in building ever grander temples for each successive Khmer God King as they switched from Hinduism to Buddhism and back again.
The gateway to Angkor is 8km outside Siem Reap so a tour of a few temples adds up to a proper bike ride of around 50km each day.
We saved the best until last. Angkor Wat at dawn. It was genuinely a spine-tingling moment to emerge through the outer gates and see the lotus-bud towers lit from behind by the sun of a new day.
As was ascending the precipitous steps to reach the kingdom of the gods.
After 600 years, the empire of Angkar fell into decline partly as a result of over-population and deforestation. A lesson for us all today perhaps?
As we cycled away from Angkor Wat towards Stung Treng, there were many quirky things we enjoyed about rural Cambodia … such as the hawkers on motor scooters and the petrol in plastic bottles,
Here are a few more:
Every house is a shop but it’s not a shop as you know it. Customers pull up outside on their motor scooters and shout their demands to the shopkeeper. There’s no browsing and you get a very odd look if you try to go inside!
Bright coloured pyjamas are all day wear for many rural Cambodian women.
Wooden houses are built on stilts, not so much for risk of flooding but to provide a nice shady area to swing in a hammock in the heat of the day.
Baguettes are everywhere … a legacy from the French colonialists.
Instant coffee is only available as pre-mixed ‘3 in 1’ with milk powder and sugar. Yuk!
Cycling in Vietnam is different to other countries we’ve pedalled through. It’s much busier … with millions of motor scooters buzzing in all directions.
Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon as most people still call it) is Scooter City. There are 8 million scooters for 14 million people! They’re used as family vehicles, often carrying four people from three generations … everyone wearing helmets except for young children!
And they’re the best way to get around narrow village roads in the countryside.
Surprised and a little horrified to hear we were cycling around Vietnam, some friendly young people we met in Saigon insisted that we learn the local rules of the road.Size matters, they said. Buses and trucks are the top dogs they said. Bicycles are right at the bottom so you must know what to do.
The golden rule is to keep your speed and direction constant, so that everyone else knows roughly where you’re going.
Never stop. Never hesitate. Never turn suddenly.
Always keep moving.
And there are more …
Traffic lights and roadsigns are only suggestions.
Don’t bother looking when you pull out of a parking space or turn onto a busy road.
Take every opportunity to overtake – even if there’s no space, even if you’re only 20 metres from your destination.
Honk your horn a lot. It’s then up to the vehicle in front of you to get out of the way.
If you’re on the wrong side of the road it’s always your right of way. You can stay next to the kerb where it’s nice and safe.
Always cut a corner, especially at a busy junction.
When crossing the road, simply walk out into the traffic and let it move around you.
It’s up to you to get out of the way if something big comes anywhere near you. Especially if you’re stupid enough to be on transport as old-fashioned as a bicycle!
But if you do see two crazy foreigners on bikes, always shout out a cheery hello!
It was good advice. When you get used to the rules, being surrounded by buzzing scooters becomes surprisingly good fun. A bit like being on a busy ski slope. Or the dodgems at a fairground.
And we were lucky. It was the Tet holiday so the traffic was much lighter than normal.
We’ve enjoyed getting to know a few Lunar New Year (Tet) traditions. We’d barely got going before we came across a huge flower market in a town called Tan An.
It was a colourful and busy scene, everyone piling impossible quantities of flowers onto their scooters as gifts for their families. All in red, orange and yellow to bring luck, joy and prosperity in the year ahead.
Every few kilometres we cycled past stallholders selling gift hampers of special New Year food and huge crates of beer. And outside each house stood offerings of five different fruits (one for each of the five elements of metal, wood, water, fire and earth) bringing ‘harmony to the universe’.
Then as the party got going in the afternoon, the karaoke systems were cranked up with drunken love songs competing with each other from amongst the coconut groves. Apparently they only work properly at maximum volume!
As a smiley lady said to us … “it’s nice for you to be in Vietnam at this time … everybody happy!”
We were a bit surprised to be peddling through coconut groves rather than paddy fields. From Tan An we cycled to Ben Tre and then onto a small village called Ap Don, resting both nights in homestays.
It was blazing hot too with the sun especially fierce in the middle of the day. Mad dogs and English cyclists out in the midday sun!
Taking back roads from Ap Don towards Can Tho, we suddenly emerged into a picture perfect carpet of rice that stretched towards the horizon. Fringed by palm tress it was a tapestry of every shade of green.
This was the Mekong Delta we’d come to see.
Following the back roads was something of a navigational challenge, as several of the paths were not marked on Google maps or our trusty ViewRanger. After some debate, we decided to follow them anyway … as long as they were paved and heading in roughly the right direction.
It was a somewhat risky approach but amazingly, it paid off. We managed to get to the next bridge or the next road that was marked on our map.
The surface became a bit rough at times. But it was good to get away from the scooters. And all the kids were so surprised to see us, they would often charge out of their houses just to shout “Hellooooo” or“How are yooouuu?”Their enthusiasm was infectious and uplifting.
Meandering through the Mekong Delta took us across lots of little bridges. And one old ferry that shuffled across a muddy tributary.
We also braved four huge, daunting bridges across the wide rivers that drain the Mekong, each 2 to 3 kilometres long.
Our last leg across the delta turned out to be over 120km on a busy road, so we chickened out and took the bus. This worked out fairly well, although it was not without the sort of challenges we’re now learning to expect when we try and load our bikes on buses during a busy holiday.
It doesn’t matter how many times you check that the bikes will be OK on the phone. It’s the staff at the bus station that make the call. At first they refused to let us board, but eventually relented and let us change our tickets to a bigger bus … departing 3 hours later.
In Châu Doc we rode out to Nui Sam (Sam Mountain), a granite outcrop some 284m high and full of pagodas and monasteries. As they zoomed by on their scooters, everyone else thought it was hilarious to see us struggling up the 10-12 degree climb.
But the views at the top were well worth the sweat.
We’re now in Phnom Penh, capital of Cambodia, having cheated again by taking a boat all the way from Châu Doc up the Mekong River. This turned out to be a lovely trip … boats are definitely our favourite alternative transport!
Overall, our journey through the Mekong Delta was not quite what we’d imagined … meandering through a gentle landscape of rice paddies and waterways.
It is much nosier and much busier … with those pesky motor scooters buzzing past us most of the time. Each road or path is lined with houses and Vietnamese flags. People are everywhere.
But it’s the people who have made it such a wonderful experience. Smiles and laughter all the way as they enjoyed their holiday. And each one greeting us with a few words of perfect Queen’s English.
Not “Hi” or “How yer doing?”
but “Hello, how are you?”
And our favourite … “It’s very nice to meet you!”
Well, it was very nice to meet you too.
Clare and Andy
If you’d like to see a video of one days ride through the Mekong, we have posted it on our Facebook and Instagram pages together with some other photos.
Use the links underneath the main menu on this blog. Or go to Facebook/Instagram and search for avoidingpotholes.
Most of Tasmania is green. Queenstown is orange. Mining has turned it into a moonscape of bare rock and eroded gullies.
Abel Tasman’s was the first European to sight the west coast of Tasmania in 1642. Surprised to see his compass behaving strangely, he made a note in the log that there may be “plentiful mineral wealth hereabouts”.
There was, but not of a colour people expected. Prospectors arrived some 240 years later seeking gold but the quantity extracted did not match the extreme hardships they faced to find it. It was ‘fools gold’.
A few years later some canny metallurgists returned and found copper … lots and lots of copper.
Founded in 1893, the Mount Lyell Mining and Railway Company became famous as one of the richest copper mines in the world, producing more than a million tonnes in its 100 years of operation. But this came at a cost … blasting away the mountain and polluting the nearby Queen and King Rivers with so much waste that they won’t recover for another 100 years.
We stayed at Penghana, a British Victorian red brick that still dominates Queenstown from the top of a small hill. Now a B&B, it was once the mine manager’s private house. He had a special balcony built at the top of the house so he could smoke his pipe in the evening and still watch his precious smelters.
All the settlements on Tasmania’s west coast started out as mining towns. Tullah for lead, Rosebery for zinc and Zeehan for silver. Known as ‘Silver City’, Zeehan had a peak population of over 10,000 with more than 20 pubs. Today there’s one pub and only 728 people.
Strahan was not always the quaint little harbour town we’d so enjoyed. It used to be an extremely busy port taking the ore out to an insatiable world.
How did the ore get from the inland mining towns to the ships at Strahan? With great difficulty. They laboriously built a network of narrow-gauge railways, cutting through rocky mountain ridges and dense rainforest … all by hand. Despite an average speed of just 10kph, the steam engines became a lifeline for these communities.
The trains stopped working in 1963 when road travel took over. But in 2002 they were restored by a group of enthusiasts as a tourist wilderness experience using the original locomotives. It’s not your average steam train ride and has become so popular that the railway is once again one of the biggest employers in town.
Ironically many of those tourists visit Queenstown specifically to see the haunting orange landscape that is the legacy of a century of open-caste mining.
In complete contrast, Cradle Mountain is a natural beauty, pure and healthy. On a crisp, sunny day, we were lucky enough to see it in all its glory as we hiked up to Marion’s Lookout (1290m) and across to Ronny Creek.
Clare definitely made the right decision to get the bus from Strahan to Burnie and really enjoyed a few days morphing into a tourist.
All the locals enjoyed telling Andy what a fool he was not to jump in the car with her!
The cycling turned out to be even harder than expected. The first day’s ride from Strahan to Tullah was long at 85km and had a nasty sting in it’s tail.
The second day was only 56km from Tullah to Cradle Mountain but it was relentlessly uphill. The first 30km, followed the Murchison Highway which meant plenty of logging trucks roaring past at 100km/hour.
Those of you who follow professional cycling will be familiar with commentators dramatically announcing that a rider has “lost his legs!” as he falls behind the others. This is what happened to Andy on this climb as he started to resemble Fabian Aru on a bad day. (Aru is known for his untidy, bobbing riding style and gurning expressions.)
The final day’s ride from Cradle Mountain back down to Devonport is normally a spectacular route through rolling hills and forests. But … the weather gods must have decided that one sunny day was enough. They gave us cold, penetrating Irish mizzle instead. So cold in fact, that Andy put on two coats to try and stay warm.
In the early afternoon the clouds lifted, the rain stopped and this foolish cyclist was rewarded with a golden moment. Seeking hot coffee, he stumbled across the Tasmania Arboretum where he found several platypuses frolicking lazily in a pool.
Fittingly, the final descent wound through a magnificent Eucalyptus forest shrouded in mist. In Australia, we’ve seen thousands of Eucalypts but they’ve never become boring. Papery blue-grey bark peals off in shreds to reveal a changing canvas of smooth white trunks highlighted with patches of yellow or orange.
Our route around Tasmania (clockwise from Devonport):
Tasmania: 1,328km (825 miles) over 21 days. 18,774m of climbing.
Australia total: 1,700km (1,055 miles) over 27 days. 21,190m of climbing.
This makes Tasmania as hilly as Chile!
Tasmania definitely lives up to its reputation as a great place for a bike tour. Any tour come to that … by car, by campervan, especially by motorbike. It’s a beautiful and unspoilt island with lots of variety and without huge distances between places. The roads are in good condition with only light traffic and almost all the drivers are considerate to cyclists. Especially the logging trucks in our experience!
It is a tough cycling challenge, mainly because of all those hills. Perhaps that’s why we only bumped into 6 other touring cyclists.
The weather is variable at any time of year with plenty of wind and rain. We probably started 2-3 weeks too late in the season for perfect cycling conditions but were lucky with lots of nice days.
We’ve had no injuries, no illness and most surprisingly no mechanicals. Not a single puncture. Andy did spectacularly fall off his bike on a downhill near Hobart, landing in a petrol station forecourt but it was only his pride that was hurt.
There’s lots of things for a cyclist to love about Australia …. impressive public toilets, great camping and accommodation, quirky community-run museums, incredibly good coffee. And brunches to die for!
In cities, the cafe culture is amongst the best in the world and there’s no tipping culture, as the staff are well paid. It’s all very straightforward and simple.
In rural Australia the food can be a bit more basic. But it’s the early closing time that catches people out. Last food orders are normally at 7:30 and by 8:30 a typical country pub is deserted. How do Spanish people manage?
On the flight back home we had a bit of fun by each listing our top five Tassie highlights. We were amazed to find they were identical:
Strahan: wilderness tours, fascinating history
Cradle Mountain: dramatic landscape
Maria Island: wildlife, peace, simplicity
Mona in Hobart: mind-boggling
Riding past the east coast beaches: white sand, gin-clear seas
Clare was no fool to jump on that bus in Strahan. And she was no fool to suggest we quit cycling to Sydney and come to Tasmania instead.
The challenge of cycling from Hobart over the mountains to the West Coast is well summed up by ‘Discover Tasmania: A Cycle Touring Guide’, a small leaflet that has become our bible:
“The West Coast is vastly different to the East Coast. It’s rugged, mountainous, beautifully wild and has a temperamental climate.
The remoteness of this route can be daunting for many and you must be well equipped to tackle the terrain.
The road from Hobart to Strahan is winding and brutally hilly at times. But it’s also beautiful and deserving of the challenge.
The climbs are not insurmountable but the descents are breathtaking!”
Our first bit of ‘temperamental climate’ was the strongest headwind we’ve ever encountered. It became so windy that we were repeatedly blown to a standstill or knocked sideways into the road as we dragged ourselves up the River Derwent. Taking sanctuary in a bus shelter, we seriously considered turning around and sailing back downwind to Hobart.
After much debate and googling of terms like ‘long distance buses’, ‘large taxis’, ‘weather forecast’, we decided to struggle on at least to the small town of New Norfolk where we gratefully came across the Badgers Bike Cafe for a very welcome coffee.
To his horror, Andy then discovered he’d left our ‘dongle’ 15km back down the road in the bus shelter. This is an important bit of kit … it’s an old mobile phone fitted with an Aussie sim card that we use to ‘hotspot’ to all our devices as a sort of wifi server.
Arrgghhhh … and lots of other expletives!
While Clare happily enjoyed a second cappuccino, Andy found a taxi to take him back to the bus shelter and recover the dongle, still on the bench where he’d left it.
Then on the taxi ride back to New Norfolk, he casually used the dongle to re-check the weather forecast for the 100th time.
Not phew! The opposite of phew!
The first cold front of winter, full of even fiercer wind and rain stirred up from the Southern Ocean, had spookily sped up and was now going to cross our path much, much, much earlier than we’d expected.
We’d have to ride very fast across the hills to make it to Hamilton before it struck.
Or … we could take a taxi?
Yes … our friendly driver, John, would be very happy to take us to Hamilton. But … his back seats didn’t fold down so he could only fit one small lady-sized bike in his boot. And yes … he was the only taxi in town.
Ten minutes later, before she’d quite realised what was happening, Clare had been bundled into the taxi and driven the 40km to Hamilton. Somewhat surprised at her early arrival and dishevelled state, the elderly B&B owner took pity on her and lit a lovely warm fire.
Andy though … had no choice but to get back on his bike.
To start with all was sunny and calm as he climbed into the hills away from the river. He took off his rain jacket, put on his sun glasses and started humming tunelessly on what (surprisingly) seemed like a lovely ride.
Then only 10km away from Hamilton the sky suddenly darkened as the cold front hit, hurling down rain and small piercing hailstones fired horizontally by 60kph winds. This was the same weather system that would later destroy a concrete bridge when it rammed into New Zealand.
That 10km took Andy well over two hours, mainly because he spent most of it sheltering in trees. However, it gave him plenty of time to contemplate an important rule of bicycle touring … don’t ever get delayed by losing your dongle!
Hobart had turned out to be a very pleasant place for a city-break especially as our son Chris flew over from Melbourne to join us. We poked around the impressive Salamanca market, enjoyed fresh fish and chips on the harbourside and hired a car to visit the haunting ruins of Port Arthur, a penal colony set up for repeat offenders.
Best of all we went to MONA, the Museum of Old and New Art.
Mona was set up by self-made gambling billionaire, David Walsh, as a ‘subversive, adult Disneyland’. It’s provocative, compelling, disturbing, shocking, enticing. We found ourselves drawn in by each exhibit with increasing curiosity. All three of us agreed … it’s worth coming to Hobart just to see Mona.
After a restful night in Hamilton we rode uphill to Tarraleah in much better weather and then onto Lake St Clair, the deepest glacial lake in Australia.
We slept in an old school that served the children of workers building a massive hydro-electric project in Tarraleah. Built in the 1930’s the village once boasted 100 houses, a police station, a town hall, shops, a church, a golf course and a school.
Hydro-electricity was and is vital for Tasmania not only for power but also for the identity and confidence of the state. But once the construction workers left, Tarraleah became a ghost town and was almost reclaimed by the bush until another entrepreneur rescued it and turned it into an activity centre and hotel.
Good friends from Sydney suggested Pumphouse Point at Lake St Clair, an even more unusual hotel converted from a water pumping station built at the end of a pier.
Our friends were right, it was a lovely treat.
It might have felt to us that we’d been riding through wilderness for several days but the actual ‘Wilderness Road’ started at Lake St Clair and took us across the vast Franklin Gordon Wild Rivers National Park.
We left early to try and get to Queenstown before the arrival of heavy downpours forecast for the afternoon.
Riding across this world heritage area genuinely felt like a wilderness experience. There were no shops, no cafes, no petrol stations … just some of the most magnificent scenery we’ve ever cycled through.
It was remote, raw and wild. And brutally hilly at times.
We crossed the ‘Great Divide’ halfway along the 85km ride, moving from the relatively dry eastern side to the much wetter west.
Weather systems from the southern ocean deposit over 2m of rainfall a year on the west coast, creating perfect conditions for thick temperate rain forest. Many of these ancient trees are only found in Tasmania … Huon Pine, Leatherwood, Celery Top, Whitey Wood, Sassafras, King Billy Pine.
The downpours predictably arrived and we got completely drenched just 5km away from Queenstown. It was like the taps being turned on.
A last breathtaking descent the following day took us down to the remote town of Strahan on the banks of MacQuarie Harbour, six times bigger than Sydney Harbour.
One of the reasons tourists come to Strahan is to take an extraordinary boat trip across to the narrow ‘Hells Gates’ harbour entrance and then up the Gordon River deep into the rain forest.
The boat tour also stops at Sarah Island.
On this tiny strip of land, seemingly at the end of the earth, around 500 of the worst offending convicts endured the toughest conditions imaginable combined with a brutal regime of hard labour and vicious punishments.
They had to build a wooden fence wall to stop the ‘Roaring Forties’ blowing the whole place away.
They had no fresh water, it had to be shipped in, so was heavily rationed.
The convicts had little shelter. Many slept where they worked.
Much of that work was sawing huge tree trunks to make ships. The saw was operated by two men, a ‘top dog’ sawing down and an ‘underdog’ sawing up. The underdogs were often waste deep in sea water and wore a hood to prevent the sawdust falling in their eyes.
The prisoners successfully protested that no underdog should have to work if the water was less than 8°C. Which means that 9°C was OK!
This put our minor inconveniences with the west coast weather somewhat in perspective.
Sarah Island only operated as a penal colony for 9 years until Port Arthur was built. Remarkably in the last 5 years a more enlightened regime persuaded these hardened men to manufacture 96 boats, known throughout Australia for their quality. All built from local Huon Pine which is prized for both it’s buoyancy and natural waterproofing.
This included several large ships, the last of which was unsurprisingly pinched by the ten convicts left behind on the island to finish it. They escaped by sailing all the way across the Pacific to Chile.
This is brought to life each evening in a pantomime called ‘The Ship That Never Was’, now Australia’s longest running play.
Five days of cycling across the Great Divide from Hobart to Strahan took us 366km with 5271m of climbing. Now we find ourselves back down at sea level. To get to Devonport we’ll need to do it all over again, this time via Cradle Mountain.
Clare has decided that this is a thankless task and that Strahan makes a perfect end-point to her Tasmanian bike tour.
To her delight, she’s discovered a daily bus service from Strahan to Burnie on the north coast. There she’s planning to rent a car for a few days and enjoy becoming Andy’s support team.
In total she’s cycled over 1500km and climbed more than 17,000m.
Sometimes enough is enough!
This means that Clare has completed a ‘journey’ by travelling A to B from Devonport to Strahan. If Andy makes it back to Devonport he will merely have ridden a ‘round trip’!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
As 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.