Helen wears the FINDRA stripe base layer
“Part of me just wants to get to Melbourne, get on a plane and go home.”
“Well it’s still 2,200km of cycling to get there.” I tried to offer up some kind of encouragement through my tears.
Mike had hit rock bottom as we arrived at the Moodini Bluff rest area 25km east of the Madura roadhouse in Western Australia. We were 16 cycling days into our ride across Australia and in each one we’d been battling a brutal you’re-only-going-to-go-5 mph-no-matter-how-hard-you-pedal headwind. I was now on day 4 of my daily sobbing from mental and physical exhaustion. Not all day, but everyday. Mike and I had spent 14 months saving every penny we earned to pack up our lives and leave to go on a cycle adventure around the world. There were times during those months of saving where I felt like the leaving date would never get closer; I was frustrated and impatient and I was feeling those emotions all over again tenfold in the barren landscape of the Australian outback.
It was now 24thJanuary 2018 and we had left Glasgow on 4thApril 2017 but this was the first point where we both felt like we really couldn’t keep going. We were roughly half way round, and both the beginning and the end were so far away we felt adrift on the other side of the world. The strong headwind along a flat straight road that we were pushing into was mentally harder than anything we’d done before, be it a monsoon rain or a 9,000ft mountain pass. After each day’s cycling though we would set ourselves on autopilot, arrive at camp, find a spot without an ant’s nest, set up the tent, get the dinner on. The ease of this routine meant it was quite therapeutic after the hardship of each day, and my mind drifted and really considered what it would be like to quit. My lowest ebb in life had been near Christmas 2015. Suffering in a deep depression, I couldn’t get out of bed, let alone shower, cook a meal or try and find help. But I was very lucky and the most important sentence that has ever been said to me came through via Facebook Messenger by my friend, Ashley whom I’d gone munro bagging with a few months earlier and who knew the state I was in. I had said, “The idea of getting out of bed feels like climbing a mountain.” And he said, “But you’ve already done that.”
Having made it this far, there was no way we could go home only half done.
It feels as if the endless ribbon of tarmac vanishing into the distance and the stench of rotten, sun baked kangaroo is all that the Australian outback offers. But there’s more if you care to look a little harder. The road here is the only route between Western and South Australia and it stretches 1200 kilometres across the part of the outback known as the Nullarbor. We were approaching a section where the Eyre Highway flirts with the edge of the Great Australian Bight. The cliffs here at the edge of the limestone karst used to meet with Antarctica 50 million years ago but now plummet 60m straight down into the ocean. Having been battered by a desiccating gale for the last umpteen days, we checked the weather and saw that for a couple of hours in the middle of the night there would be a tailwind! Breaking camp at 1:30am we set off half an hour later until the headwind met us again just before dawn, but we pressed on, eventually clocking 16 hours on the bikes that day.
There is no standing water up on the karst. Instead it percolates straight through the rocks and so this section is safe to ride at night since there are no kangaroos here. Elsewhere on the Nullarbor it’s a real danger to be taken out by a bounding ‘roo and at night you can’t see them coming. So we rode our longest day of the journey between two of the few roadhouses that dot the Eyre. During those silent few hours with the wind behind us, the absolute peace we felt riding at night with no light pollution around was so joyful. Completely alone in the monumental expanse of the Australian outback, watching a distant thunderstorm bursting with lightning coloured red from atmospheric dust, and the shining milky way bridging the horizons, we were awestuck. For a while we stopped riding altogether, switched off all our lights and simply bathed in the spectacle. That night’s riding will always be extremely special to me, more so given that just a day or so previously we had been in tears and dreaming of going home, but somehow we persevered and were rewarded so amazingly.
Of course, we didn’t go home from Australia. We kept riding through Melbourne, Canberra, Sydney and up to Byron Bay where we finished the Australian section. Walking into the sea at Byron Bay was pure relief. A relief that we’d got that far and not quit, and a relief that I’d learnt what it is to be patient and self-assured. I had eventually learned how to keep calm when the wind is howling, the rain pouring or the temperature soaring, calm when tired and calm when lost, and I felt like a brand new person walking into the Pacific Ocean. Cycling around the world doesn’t bring you instant gratification; it can take days to get over a mountain high range, weeks or months to cross countries and continents but it has armed me with the knowledge of my ability. I can ride for days on end into nothingness, I can push my body beyond the limits I thought it had and I appreciate every second it’s taken to achieve. The endorphins pumped through my system every day has helped me push through the depression I started with and I am now free of the medication I was on. I’m starting my life again now that Mike and I are home, and married, and I’m ready to climb any mountains which may appear.