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