Interview With Roff Smith: Bike Tourist & Author

In 1996, author Roff Smith embarked on a 10,000 mile solo trek around Australia.

It was, he says, “the toughest thing I have ever done, and the best”.

Roff Smith
Roff Smith, going up Old Putty Road in the Blue Mountains. Photo by Medford Taylor.

Roff finished that trip nearly penniless but launched back into the workforce when National Geographic agreed to publish a series of articles and a book about his journey, Cold Beer & Crocodiles. He’s been writing for that illustrious magazine ever since.

Over the years, he’s cycled on every continent, and he recently took the time to answer a few questions about his bike trip around Australia.

***

1. Was your 1996 trip around Australia your first bicycle tour? In other words, how did you discover bicycle touring and what appealed to you about it?

No, many years earlier in the autumn of 1980, when I was 22, I cycled most of the way across the United States. I started in Laramie Wyoming, where I had spent the summer working as a field archaeologist. My bicycle was a lightweight Trek I’d bought earlier that summer at a shop in Boulder, Colorado, I set off for my family home in New Hampshire.

Although I loved it, that jaunt turned out to be the last for a long while – until I set out from Sydney on that big bicycle journey around Australia.

Roff Smith
Roff Smith, leaving Sydney on his bicycle tour around Australia. Photo by Medford Taylor.

I had in the meantime though cycled a lot as a commuter for work and cycling had always appealed to me as a means of exploring the world, even if I hadn’t acted on that as much as I would have liked. Circumstances kind of prevented that. But when I quit my job in 1996 and money was tight, cycling had some very definite advantages!

2. When you began your trip around Australia, what do you remember about the feelings and emotions of that decision, and those initial days on the road?

Funnily enough, it wasn’t nerve wracking at all.

Throughout my life and career I’ve always been willing to take risks, and odd though it seems now neither the career, financial nor physical risks of taking off on a journey like that troubled me in the least. That said, the first few days on the road, while I settled into this new life, were mentally trying.

I was still in too much of a hurry, hadn’t slowed the pace of my life and thoughts to match that of my bicycle. I was expecting too much, trying too hard. That took about 400 kilometres to dissipate.

It was in Grafton, a pretty town in northern New South Wales, about four days out of Sydney that everything just clicked, and from then on the ride was the single most rewarding thing I have ever done.

3. Australia is currently a very popular place to tour but it can also seem intimidating. Vast distances. Searing temperatures. Not much water. What was the biggest challenge you faced?

People are right to be intimidated to a degree by the vastness and the hostility of the Australian outback. It’s not an issue at all if you are just cycling along the fertile and populated east coast, from Sydney, say, to Cairns; or riding along the southeast from Adelaide or Melbourne to Sydney.

But once you head inland, over the ranges, into the wide sun-bronzed bush, your degree of difficulty goes up exponentially and if you are coming down the west coast from Darwin to Perth or exploring the Kimberley, it can be very tough indeed. On some of the lonelier stretches I was carrying as much as 23 litres of water on the bike, and needing it all.

Roff Smith
A long, desolate road through the Australian outback. Photo by Roff Smith.

It was high summer when I was coming down the west coast and temperatures were soaring to over 120°F in the shade, there were dust, flies and baking headwinds and long, long stretches of nothing. Towns out there can be over 500 kilometres apart! I had to carry everything I needed between places and very much be aware of the dangers and risk averse.

4. And the nicest moment – one truly memorable experience that stands out for you?

There were so many – and in so many different ways.

The people and the hospitality I experienced out there in the bush was beyond anything I could have hoped for.

In my nine months on the road I stayed on vast sheep stations, and million acre cattle properties, mining towns and Aboriginal communities – people opened their hearts and their homes and I was privileged to see life as it is really lived in the bush. As for specifics – where do I start?

Photo by Roff Smith
Giggling girls – just a few of the many friendly faces Roff met on his trip. Photo by Roff Smith.

The young Queensland policeman who was about to get married and invited me along on fishing trip with his uncles and best man-to-be in the wild Gulf Country? I later went to his wedding as well!

Or crossing the Great Sandy Desert – 555 supposedly hostile empty kilometres from Broome to Port Hedland – and having so many invitations from people on remote cattle stations along the way that it took me over two weeks to reach Port Hedland, by which time I’d gained ten pounds and gotten out of shape?

Or the incredibly kind and open family in Warnambool, on Victoria’s storm-lashed coast, who took me in when I got sick much later on in my journey, nursed me through and set me on my way?

There were so many kind people that to name a few makes me feel guilty for the ones I’ve left out, and to list them all would take all day. On the purely personal front, my nights of camping all alone on the vast spinifex plains, a hundred miles from anyone else, and looking up at the immensity of stars overhead – that was simply magical.

5. What advice would you give other cyclists who are contemplating a trip around Australia?

Do it. Allow plenty of time. Bring plenty of water. And open yourself to the experiences the bush has to offer. You’ll never regret it.

***

Learn more about Roff, and read his bicycle musings on his blog: My Bicycle and I

Comments

  1. Jeff Katzer
    17th March 2012 at 4:26 am #

    I love that book. I picked it up at the completion of a bicycle ride down the California Coast. Are you gonna have a podcast about Rolf?

  2. Andrea
    30th March 2012 at 3:51 am #

    I’d like to provide links to my experiences with pictures and diary of travelling from the east coast to almost the west coast across northern australia with pictures.

    https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.1172680631214.27813.1053963778&type=3&l=e2b8c8a7d5 This is my first trip. It is 2400km from my home to Darwin. I covered 2000before my bike jammed up.

    My second journey was 3000km – from Darwin, almost to Broome and back to Darwin in a loop route.

    http://www.photoblog.com/shangrila/2011/05/29/day-10-western-australia–northern-territory-cycling-tour.html use the small pictures and the archives link to navigate.

    the highlights are the hospitality of strangers and camping out alone. Its a very safe place if you pick the right season. You should be able to avoid seering temperatures.

    In the first diary, i’ve already edited my pictures so the report is brief. The second version includes almost all my pictures and most of my diaries. I have made some errors like wiping out some pictures and haven’t updated my whole diary. Its a more time consuming blog to view. But there’s lots of useful tips in the diaries if one can take the time to read it all.

    I was going to write a recipe book on the basis of my outback dinners and if one was planning such a trip around australia I would consider as vital some of my food ideas though i am sure you won’t starve even if you don’t.

    maybe friedel would like me to write a post about how to make not-burnt damper (bread) on a campfire – which is an eminently sensible thing to do in Australia when in the outback and travelling on a tight budget.

  3. Bob Adair
    30th March 2012 at 4:53 am #

    I’m an avid devourer of books on bike touring and ‘Cold Beer and Crocodiles’, along with ‘Full Tilt’ and Anne Mustoe’s ‘A Bike Ride’, is one of my favourites.

    Every bike trip is a bit like an epic poem, and Roff’s tale was one of the most ‘epic’ of them all 🙂 Thank you Roff!

  4. Mark Carrington
    30th March 2012 at 6:48 am #

    Here’s a way to have the same joy and experiences but with less effort – get someone to carry the gear. I will be doing a couple of the legs to add to my 5 trips across Australia to date. http://www.facebook.com/CycleAroundAustralia

    • Andrea
      30th March 2012 at 7:42 am #

      I think this is called spam

      • Mark Carrington
        30th March 2012 at 8:10 am #

        Sorry you see it that way.
        Cycling across Australia is a challenge – I know I’ve done it 5 times. And I know you do too
        Not all of us can do it alone but it is definitely worth doing – the emptiness, the colour, the people, the stars, the challenge, etc.
        I do not run the tours – I just enjoy them. Many people have enjoyed them too. And here is a chance to do it all the way around for the first time ever.

  5. Aushiker
    16th May 2012 at 4:43 am #

    Thanks for sharing your link Mark. Always good to read of others experiences/options. I often get asked about supported options so handy to know of possibilities.

  6. Aushiker
    16th May 2012 at 4:45 am #

    Thanks for sharing the interview with Rolf. I recently finished reading his book, Cold Beer & Crocodiles. A great read and a very inspiring one. I highly recommend it.

    • Amy
      29th January 2014 at 10:09 am #

      Where can you get this book from? I am part of the Macintosh family Roff stayed with in Queensland, I was about 9 years old when he came to our property. We have always had the National Geographic magazine but I only just found out he wrote a book & would derly love to get hold of a couple of copies. I have searched the web extensively but cannot find anywhere that it is in stock!

  7. Elaine Montgomery
    30th December 2014 at 5:30 pm #

    Having just completed the book in virtually one sitting (it was that good) did the author travel 10,000 miles in the Australian sun over a nine month period not wearing sunglasses!?!

  8. Cilla Geldenhuys
    10th September 2017 at 8:02 pm #

    I have just read the original National Geographic articles. Then got my hubby to read them. Naturally I googled Roff. That’s how I arrived here. So inspiring. We are in the throes of packing up and retiring to Australia from South Africa.Ummm rethinking the traditional concept of retirement is now totally confirmed in our hearts. Wish us well!

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