Over seven hundred kilometres west of Brisbane, Charleville is home to more than 3,000 people and a thriving pastoral industry.
My friend Simon caught the train there recently, and rode his bike back to Brisbane.
This is his story.
The plan was to travel light and spend each night in a town, rather than having to camp out. Not having to carry camping and cooking gear would make it easier to ride each day, and much easier to lift the bike over fences and gates, if necessary.
The Westlander is a long-distance train which makes the 700km journey to Charleville and back twice per week.
The Westlander offers a basic service – no sleepers or dining car. It’s a seventeen hour journey to the end of the line, which is a long time to be sitting in one seat.
The friendly porters loaded Simon’s bike into the luggage car, while he boarded the train to find his seat for the night.
The frustrating thing about a long-distance train journey is that there’s not much to see during the night. But as the next day started to dawn, Simon got his first glimpse of the vast agricultural plains west of the Great Dividing Range, near Roma.
Ninety minutes later he was in Mitchell.
A couple of hours later, the landscape started to look a lot different.
Red dirt and low scrub stretched as far as the eye could see.
Another friendly porter wheeled Simon’s bike off the train.
Rather than set off immediately, he took the rest of the day off and stayed at the local pub.
It was a public holiday, so the staff at the Hotel Corones kindly invited him to a staff barbecue.
The next town, Morven was almost one hundred kilometres away. It was no good setting off in the middle of the day – it would take a days ride to get there.
“I’d better go,” he thought to himself. “It’s not much use waiting around another few days for the train.”
If you pass this way in summer it’s hot and dusty – not the sort of place for a long ride. This time of year it was perfect – just a bit muddy in places.
“The worst thing was the flies” Simon told me. “As soon as I stopped, clouds of flies would cover my face. So I decided it was better to keep moving.”
What had passed so quickly on the westward journey was now rewinding at a much more leisurely pace.
Earlier in the day, he had visited the local bakery to fill his Camelbak with water.
Unfortunately, he didn’t realize that bakery only put one litre of water in his three litre Camelbak, which wasn’t nearly enough for a one hundred kilometre ride in thirty degree heat.
He tried out his “Lifestraw”, filling an empty water bottle from a muddy puddle, then using the Lifestraw to filter the dirty water.
Imagine following a dirt track beside a railway line for nine hours – and not seeing another person all day.
Simon had to lift his bike over gates and fences a few times, and was grateful for traveling light, despite having to fight a 20km/h headwind.
Five kilometres out of Morven, he rejoined the Warrego Highway. He had run out of water. Beside the road he saw a discard half-empty bottle of water.
“I needed a drink. I smelled the bottle. It seemed ok. So I drank the rest of the water in the bottle”
Sadly, there is no pub in Morevn. It burned down a few years ago.
But there is a welcoming hotel built out of prefabricated rooms aptly named the “Pick a Box”…
“I had to ride three kilometres up the road to the petrol station to buy my dinner. I was too tired to eat it then, so I just stashed the food in my backpack and rode back to the hotel, to eat it later.”
…perfect for a tired man and his bike!
Total climbing: 951 m
Average temperature: NAN
Total time: 09:17:56
“It was awesone, just brilliant.” he told me.
“You could tell no one had been there for ages. I saw hundreds of kangaroos.”
Even though he was only a few hundred metres from the road, it felt remote – totally isolated from anyone else.
While grinding along the red dirt track he broke a gear cable. Thankfully if was only for the front derailleur, which was inconvenient, but wasn’t catastrophic.
It was Easter Sunday.
“There weren’t many cars on the highway, and there was plenty of room beside the road, so the traffic didn’t bother me”
He had broken a spoke.
Most cyclists hate breaking spokes because of the possibility that the wheel might buckle and become useless.
It didn’t bother him. He taped up the broken spoke to stop the noise, and continued.
“It didn’t seem to affect my wheel at all” he said.
His “Flow” tubeless rims are incredibly tough.
“I saw a bloke behind an old house and waved at him.”
“Hang on a sec,” the stranger said, while he tied up his excited dog.
Ken, lived in an old house beside the road.
“I’ve got town water, would you like some?” Ken proudly pointed to a water tap poking out of the ground.
He generously filled Simon’s Camelbak.
He and Ken chatted for a while. When Ken discovered where Simon lived, he explained that he was friends with the Dohle family of “Dohle’s Rocks” – just down the river from Simon’s house.
It’s a small world.
“Are you ok?” he asked, thinking our hero was lost. He had never seen anyone riding down his road on a bike before, and was concerned about Simon’s safety.
“I wouldn’t go down that road if I was you” he said. “It’s sandy and unrideable, and there’s a locked gate.”
Simon had grown used to grinding through sand all day, and heaving his bike over locked gates.
“That’s what I’ve been doing for the last couple of days” he replied happily.
After talking with his new friend for a while, he continued eastward.
An hour later, he arrived in Mitchell.
“The pub in Mitchell was fantastic,” Simon said.
“It was just me in the pub, and two barmaids.”
“The food was brilliant. The small steak was huge and hung over the sides of my place. I’m glad I didn’t order the large steak.”
I think he was pleasantly surprised by the size of the ice creams too.
Apparently, Mitchell is a very generous place.
Total climbing: 1041 m
Average temperature: NAN
Total time: 09:37:30
Hurting from the last couple of days, our intrepid hero decided to have a rest day in Mitchell, soaking in the local artesian spa for most of the day.
The Great Artesian Basin is a huge underground sea – the largest in the world. It stretches for over 1.7 million square kilometres – lying under almost a quarter of the Australian continent.
In many parts of this land, it is the only source of fresh water because inland rivers are often just dry.
In some places, the water is over three thousand metres deep.
Despite what the sign above says, it contains about 65,000 cubic kilometres of water.
It is under threat from chemical damage caused by Coal Seam Gas extraction.
Feeling rejuvenated from his “spa day” in Mitchell, Simon continued eastwards under heavy clouds.
Rather than ride on the dirt, he decided to stay on the highway for the first half of the day.
After a couple of hours he reached the small town of Amby – but no one was home. The shop was closed. No one was around, and the only thing open was the public toilet.
Half an hour later, it started to rain gently.
He pulled into the petrol station at Muckadilla for a quick snack.
It was more than a petrol station. The local service station was also the post office and general store.
Simon cheerfully wandered in and greeted the mechanic who was standing behind the cash register. He asked if it was ok to take his photo.
“Yeah ok” he mumbled enthusiastically.
When I had planned the route for Simon, I had suggested he follow a stock route north of the highway for a few kilometres in order to avoid traffic.
At the turn-off he met a friendly couple in their car.
“I wouldn’t ride on that stock route if I were you,” the driver said. “Its just soft alluvial soil – you won’t be able to ride it in these wet conditions.”
Simon thanked them for their advice and stayed on the main road.
Another hour later he arrived in Roma.
The ninety kilometre ride from Mitchell had taken about eight hours, including breaks.
Total climbing: 632 m
Average temperature: NAN
Total time: 08:17:50
Rain started falling more heavily the next day.
The course I had prepared for Simon had suggested he follow more stock routes north of the highway, Because of the rain, he decided instead to work out a different course on dirt roads closer to the highway.
It didn’t quite work out. He made a few wrong turns and ended up followed a in the wrong direction.
“When I left Roma I tried to stay away from the highway but it took two hours to go four kilometres.”
“It was terrible.”
Back in Brisbane, I was following Simon’s Spot Tracker, shaking my head and wondering what he was doing.
Eventually he phoned me.
Simon panned his phone around, showing me where he was.
I looked on Google Maps and suggested where he could go.
Eventually we managed to get him heading in the right direction again, along a quiet back road.
The gravel roads became increasingly muddy because of the rain.
At Wallumbilla he took a quick break to get out of the rain, and to have a snack.
“It was nice to get out of the rain, but as soon as I got under cover I was covered by a cloud of flies.”
Apparently the kangaroos in Wallumbilla are hostile. Beneath a sign saying “Revenge is sweet” a stuffed kangaroo stood sentry holding a rifle.
“I’m pretty sure it wasn’t loaded.”
The corrugated gravel roads east of Wallumbilla were wet, but not too soft.
Today’s ride was relatively short – only seventy-five kilometres. But it had taken Simon almost nine hours to ride it, because of wrong turns and wet roads.
Total climbing: 751 m
Average temperature: NAN
Total time: 08:42:14
Yuleba marked a major intersection in the voyage home.
Today he’d be leaving the railway line he’d been following for the last week, and would head south-east through the Jackson gasfields.
Thankfully the weather cleared. The rain stopped, and he enjoyed a quiet paved road for the first half hour.
Softened by the recent rain, the ground was soft and slippery. It was slow going.
The gasfields are criss-crossed by a network of vehicle tracks and barbed wire fences.
He then found his way blocked by a swollen creek.
Normally these creeks are dry, and he would have easily been able to cross, but the recent heavy rain had caused the water level to rise.
“There was no where else to go – I had to go through.”
“I waded through first with a stick without the bike to check the depth of the water.”
“I then carried my bike over. Then my bag . It took a couple of trips.”
Once he had finished, he decided the water felt quite pleasant, so he went back in for a quick swim.
Saturated from his swim, he jumped back on the bike and followed the endless dirt track to the south-east.
Eventually the dirt ran out, and the paved road continued – vanishing over the distant horizon.
The town of Condamine is named after the major inland river of the same name that passes through the town.
But Condamine is also famous for the “Bullfrog Bell”. In 1868 Samuel Jones invented a noisy bell which could be hung around the necks of livestock. The distinct knocking sound was similar to call of a bull frog, and could be heard for several kilometres – making it less likely to lose cattle and horses in the scrub.
When Simon left Yuleba that morning, the general store wasn’t open, so he wasn’t able to have a hearty breakfast.
Although it was now mid-afternoon, he still felt like he needed to make up for the morning’s deficit, and ordered breakfast from the local service station.
Total climbing: 980 m
Average temperature: NAN
Total time: 09:11:28
The second day in the gas fields was short – only about seventy kilometres
The landscape here is dotted with hundreds of Coal Seam Gas wells. connected via a web of dirt maintenance tracks through the state forest.
Wild dogs are a problem around here because of the damage they do to livestock. Although it looks gruesome, farmers and shooters hang the carcasses from trees to alert other farmers about the presence of the animals.
Several farmers in the area might have been hunting the same wild dog – the carcass in the tree lets them know a specific animal has been caught.
After finding his accommodation for the night, there was one major item that needed addressing:
Total climbing: 727 m
Average temperature: NAN
Total time: 04:58:17