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AROUND THE WORLD 2002

A Journey by Bicycle, Train, Hire Car and Camper Van, through South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and the USA

Barry and Margaret Williamson

2002 began in the Greek Peloponnese, at Aginara Beach with friends and fellow-motorhomers Barney (formerly of HM's minesweeper fleet) and June (teacher at the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth). While the Greeks puzzled over their freshly minted Euros (for many it was their first experience of the decimal point), we talked of future journeys. The RN planned for Italy, France, Spain, Portugal and Morocco. We dreamed of travels in South Africa, the Antipodes and the USA, inspired by our 12,000-mile cycle ride through Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and the USA between June 2000 and May 2001 (click here). This time we would also use campervans, cars and trains as well as our bicycles.

SOUTH AFRICA

We left our Yamaha motorbike (Alf to us, alfa to the Greeks) in a sandy surfboard shed at Aginara Beach Camping and headed for the UK in our motorhome, across the frozen north of Italy and the damp centre of France, scattering shiny new Euros along the way. The motorhome found less exotic shelter in a Lancashire barn and we flew the 12 hours to Cape Town on 23 January, the bicycles relegated to the baggage hold.

Failing to land the first time, our 747 gave us an extra 15-minute panoramic sweep over the Cape before confronting us more directly with the challenge of meeting its inhabitants. We had planned to cycle the 1,000 miles or so to Johannesburg via the Garden Coast, the Drakensberg mountains and Lesotho, but we were quickly disillusioned. It wasn't even safe to venture into Cape Town on a Saturday afternoon, once the shops were closed and their security guards gone home: the traffic police (burly Afrikaners to a man) said bluntly we would be crazy to cycle unless in a group with a support vehicle and a gun. White South Africans live along the coast in Californian-style splendour behind razor wire, CCTV and Armed Response signs; blacks live in makeshift shacks in sprawling townships - 2 million of them on the Cape Flats, on the wrong side (the back side) of Table Mountain.

For a few days we became tourists: cycling round Table Bay in daylight hours, collecting punctures; taking the ferry to Nelson Mandela's prison on Robben Island; visiting townships on Cape Flats with the mandatory black guide; watching Captain Corelli's Mandolin at the cinema in the waterfront tourist ghetto of the former Victoria & Alfred (her son) Dock, and dreaming of Greece.

Getting back to being travellers, we hired a Toyota Corolla in Cape Town, left the bicycles in our guest house basement and headed north along the empty windswept Atlantic Coast to Strandfontein, crossing the Cederberg mountains on dirt roads. Turning east, we climbed 3,000 ft into the Great Karoo, a semi-arid desert plateau that covers one third of the country, stretching north into Namibia and the Kalahari. Reminiscent of the Australian outback, the Karoo gave us many days of splendid travel across mountains and plains. Every 50 miles or so, a settlement at a cross roads (our bitumen meeting the Boers' gravel) meant a petrol station, small shop, beer hall, hotel, a few houses and, half a mile away, a black township. Legalised apartheid has been replaced by an equally unforgiving economic division: where the bullwhip failed, the devalued Rand succeeds.

Antelopes and ostriches legging it across the dusty plains and baboons sitting in lay-bys were our only experience of wildlife, apart from the drive-round Mountain Zebra National Park and Addo Elephant National Park. At East London we met the Indian Ocean coast and followed it west, through Port Elizabeth and along the Garden Route, pausing at Cape Agulhas, Africa's southernmost point, for Margaret to pose with a foot in each Ocean (Barry found an even more southerly point a few hundred yards away). Simon's Town (one of Barney's many ports) led on to the Cape of Good Hope and the Post Tree, where sailors heading into the Indian Ocean left letters to be carried back to Britain. Back in Cape Town, we visited Cecil Rhodes' grave (ironically overlooking the Cape Flats), reflected on our 3,000 mile car journey, collected the bicycles and rode down to the railway station!

28 hours in a 2-person coupé on the Trans Karoo Express carried us to Pretoria, one of South Africa's 3 capitals and the base for a visit to Johannesburg's famous suburb: the African township of Soweto (SOuth WEst TOwnship). One street had been home to 2 Nobel Peace Prize winners: Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu - but they no longer live among the township's several million blacks. Our guide, a Politics graduate from Witwatersrand University, shared the increasing resentment of all the blacks who were not ANC members in 1994 and who were not therefore bought off with good jobs. Unemployment and poverty are on the increase and a second, more profound revolution might yet be expected. It was with some relief that we lifted off from Johannesburg airport on 10 March, not least because the heat and altitude (over 6,000 ft) put Jo'burg at the limit of a full 747's ability to take off.

AUSTRALIA

After a night over the Indian Ocean, we dropped into Sydney's welcoming warmth and an opportunity to cycle the famous waterfront, harbour and bridge. 700 miles to the north and 100 miles inland from Brisbane, the town of Toowoomba harboured a small, teenaged Toyota HiAce pop-top campervan that was to be our narrow, hot and cramped home for the next 6 months. Unceremoniously dumped, unserviced, uncleaned and unloved, by its previous owners (Stan Smith, a small UK business man, and his wife, from whom we bought the thing), the van was to give us many opportunities to meet ordinary Australians, usefully and gainfully employed in 34 different garages, well off the tourist track!

Our ambition, sparked during our year 2000 cycle ride from Perth to Brisbane, was to circle this great island continent, a journey of 16,500 miles (or 26,500 klicks as a true-blue, dinky-di, Aussie bloke would say). This enterprise and the van started well enough, with a return drive to Sydney down the Pacific Coast, through the high-rise pleasures of Surfers' Paradise, the continent's easternmost point at Cape Byron and a very pleasant interlude in the Newcastle (NSW) home of the Walsh family. We first met Paul, Genny and their son John in Monemvassia in south-west Greece in 1996 and we were delighted to play 'catch-up', sharing their deck on a steep hillside overlooking Lake Macquarie.

Much has been written about the vastness, dryness, emptiness and fascination of the Australian Outback (aka the wop-wops, the bush, the never-never, back o'Bourke, beyond the black stump) and it's all true. The red earth curves to a blue horizon and fine red dust coats every surface. Narrow strips of bitumen spin beneath the wheels, bisecting the world into mirror images, left and right. Ahead, the bitumen defines the future ever-waiting; behind, it creates a past to be returned to only in emergency.

Roadhouses and small settlements (with names like Timber Creek, Fitzroy Crossing, Cloncurry, Kununurra) interrupt the dream of the road and weave their own spell of surreal character and makeshift existence, under the merciless sun. Gaunt Brahmin cattle crack the fragile crust of soil, ruminating on an earlier sacred life in India. Kangaroos and wallabies stand and stare, heads turned, before silently bounding to places only they know. Emus, in plague proportions in South Australia, outrun any Olympian, their striped young straggling behind. Platypuses, possums, camels and wombats are more commonly seen as road-kill, providing take-aways for crows, dingoes, wedgetail eagles, feral cats and foxes. Colourful birds abound and we saw koalas (which are not bears), asleep up gum trees in the forest and in their own hospital.

Across this landscape we appeared and disappeared, ever listening to our hesitant engine, ever looking for the nightly gathering place where stories or insults might be exchanged with unknown neighbours. Radio National on medium wave kept us in touch with the world, its frequencies a closely guarded secret, its strength sufficient to carry only a few miles from small town transmitters. To spend an evening under one of its towers was to feel a part of the human race again. Only then could we understand what the advent of radio, the flying doctor and the School of the Air meant to families on remote outback stations.

Our journey took us round the coast - we can list some places: Brisbane, Newcastle, Sydney, the Snowy Mountains, the southernmost point at Wilson's Promontory, Melbourne, the Murray River, Adelaide, Port Augusta (with side trips into the Flinders Ranges and up to the opal mining town of Coober Pedy), the crossing of the Nullarbor Plain, Esperance, Albany, Perth, the lonely coast of Western Australia, the westernmost point on the Useless Loop Road near Denham, the Tropic of Capricorn, Ningaloo Reef, Great Sandy Desert, Broome, Wyndham, Darwin, Alice Springs, Ayers Rock, the Gulf of Carpentaria at Karumba, Cairns, Cooktown, the Great Barrier Reef, Townsville, the rum town of Bundaberg - and so back to Brisbane.

We can list some highlights: cycling to the summit of Australia's highest mountain, 7,350 ft Mt Kosciusko in the Snowy Mountains; the Anzac Day Parade in Mt Gambier; driving across the 850-mile Nullarbor Plain, reliving our cycle crossing in 2000; feeding time for saltwater crocodiles on their farm near Wyndham; staying for several nights with Bec and Kev at their home-on-stilts in the tropical rain forest of northern Queensland (we first met in 1997 in Alexandroupoli on the Greek-Turkish border); getting as far north on gravel roads as Cooktown, where Captain James Cook beached the Endeavour in 1770 for repairs after grounding on the reef off Cape Tribulation; following in the footsteps of the early explorers - Burke and Wills, Eyre, Stuart, Mitchell, Sturt - as they made their 19th century way inland from the coastal settlements; meeting the outback's few cyclists and 21st century explorers - Kathy and Alan each on a clockwise circumnavigation of the continent, but on its opposite sides, Malcolm and Michael, English and Greek, riding together from Adelaide to Darwin 'up the middle', Don and Tim on reclining bikes (and how we envied them all).

We can remember our low points: passing the place near Barrow Creek, north of Alice Springs, where Huddersfield's Peter Falconio was abducted from his campervan, shot and spirited away while his partner Joanne Lees managed to escape to tell the tale; the misery of the Aboriginal people, strangers after 40,000 years in their own land, and our sadness at being unable even to make eye contact with them.

But to know Australia, to feel Australia, to understand a little of Australia, you will have to go yourself. Avoid the narrow fringe of south-eastern Australia where 90% of the people live within 15 miles of the sea: rapidly suburbanised, rapidly motorised, rapidly obese. In the words of the Aussie song: life begins at the end of the bitumen.

NEW ZEALAND

We sold the campervan, now in near-excellent working order, the day before our 6-month visa expired: the day before our flight to Auckland on 10 September (one day before the anniversary of 9-11). Our plan was to rent a campervan that would help us fill in the gaps left when we cycled 4,600 miles through the country in 2000/2001. Finding vans to be much cheaper if collected in Christchurch on the South Island and returned to Auckland on the North Island, we headed south - 18 hours by train spread over 2 days, with a night in Wellington before taking the Cook Strait ferry.

The campervan hired from 'Adventure' was a complete delight after our Australian experience. It was slightly larger with a high roof, diesel engine, toilet, shower, fridge, cooker, splendid queen-size bed and lots of storage space above the cab. It took us to places throughout the Southern Alps from where we could cycle - climbing mountain passes, following rivers, exploring bays and headlands. A great 3 days were spent riding the Central Otago Rail Trail - 100 miles of former mountain railway adapted for cycling and walking. We rode in the company of 10 cyclists from Christchurch, a group of family and friends led and supported by their doyen, Les Murcott of Mosgiel near Dunedin. Les, a retired schoolteacher, had worked as a volunteer on the conversion of the railway and his camper van provided shelter and sustenance to a dozen hungry riders fighting strong winds and the stony track.

We returned the campervan to Auckland after 7 excellent weeks (at just £20 per day off-peak hire charge!) The warmer weather (spring was on its way in early November) tempted us back onto our bicycles for a 1,500 mile ride down the east coast of the North Island, round the Coromandel Peninsula and East Cape, through Gisborne, Napier, the Wairarapa and then west through the Manawatu Gorge to Wanganui and around the Taranaki volcano to New Plymouth and Stratford.

Heading east again, we followed the Forgotten World Highway to the remote hamlet of Ohura. Here live Charley (who left England, but not his Keighley accent, over 40 years ago as a lad) and his wife Janet, who is cousin to the Maori Queen. We first met this lovely couple in Queensland and we enthusiastically took up their suggestion to visit. Our few days in their home were a wonderful opportunity to learn about Maori, their history and legends, their present-day practice, hopes and aspirations. Charley speaks Maori, builds and rides bicycles and is, with Paul and Jack, a happy member of the Ohura triumvirate of retirees in Antipodean 'summer wine' country. We asked if they would consider extending their membership to 2 wandering poms.

From Ohura we rode a hilly 30 miles to the nearest town, Taumaranui, and then climbed 2,500 ft onto the central volcanic plateau, to spend a quiet pre-Christmas period at Ohakune, beneath Mt Ruapehu, a 9,179 ft snow-capped volcano (known to Tolkein fans as Mt Doom). On Christmas day we rode 50 quiet miles back to Taumaranui, from where we caught the train to Auckland. By 28 December we were in Los Angeles.

USA

Our few days in Los Angeles included cycle rides along the edge of the Pacific, being overtaken only twice on the cycle/skateboard/roller blade path that fronts Muscle Beach, and the fulfilment of an ambition – hire-car-driving LA's multi-lane freeways with their images of LAPD chases, real and imaginary. We did have our own run-in with the law in Hollywood - a US$45 fine for parking on street-cleaning day (even though it was New Year's Day, with no cleaning!) Equally disappointing for Margaret was discovering, outside Grauman's Chinese Theatre, that Mel Gibson's hands and feet (and presumably other parts) were smaller than Barry's.

Checking in to fly to San Francisco on 2 January, Barry's nose, British passports and strange cycling shoes conspired to ensure we were thoroughly searched and our bicycles sniffed for explosives. San Francisco also gave us a 'first' - we were met by Dick and Audrey Valentzas in their Jeep Grand Cherokee, waiting to take us, bicycles and all, to their home over the Golden Gate Bridge, in San Rafael in Marin County, coincidentally the birthplace of the mountain bike.

Over the next 7 days, Dick and Audrey literally gave us the time of our lives. Hovering on either side of septuagenarianism, they only recently ended 12 years of life on the road; we first met in 1998, motorhoming in Sicily. Using ferries across the Bay (passing San Quentin and Alcatraz), bicycles and cable cars, we thoroughly explored San Francisco. We walked in redwood forests, paid tribute to Jack London at his graveside and burnt-down home in the hills of Glen Ellen, watched legendary Ramblin' Jack Elliott at an evening concert, ate at a Thai restaurant and at a typical downtown diner called Sally's, enjoyed Dick's magnificent home cooking and met friends - Sally (founder of the Diner and now a ceramic artist), Susan (novelist and painter of flamingos), Roy (retired Norwegian sailor and now houseboat owner), John (teacher of travel and tourism) and Matt (glider pilot, photo-journalist, civil rights worker, Kennedy assassination investigator and founder Greenpeace activist).

Dick and Audrey's eldest daughter, Paget, teaches Spanish-speaking children in San Francisco, rides a bicycle, works for Peace and Bicycle Lanes and had once been a taxi driver in SF. She gave us a day of her time, riding the many steep hills and showing us how to 'work' the traffic. Unforgettable.

Returning to Los Angeles, we flew to New York in 5½ hours, in sharp contrast to the 7 weeks it normally takes to cycle across! Well below freezing, it was far too cold to cycle in NY, so we based ourselves in a motel under the flight path at JFK airport, hired a car and commuted 20 miles to Manhattan, via Queens and the Bronx, crossing all 4 bridges over the East River and enjoying the stimulation of driving NY-style. Like a tourist from the Empire visiting London for the first time, we really enjoyed actually seeing places that were both familiar and unknown - Central Park, the Empire State Building, Times Square at night, Wall Street, Statue of Liberty, 5th Avenue, Greenwich Village, Harlem - we knew them all but we didn't know them at all. Mind-numbing was the hole, covering several blocks and 5 storeys deep, where the World Trade Center should have been. Ground Zero. We understood America's anger.

Manchester Airport in January at 2 am (our time) is no place to think about the next journey, but we were already planning a spring and summer of motorhoming in southern and eastern Europe, and an autumn return to long-distance cycling. Other travellers have helped us think about India, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam; Charley and Janet talked knowledgeably of South Pacific islands and others have recommended parts of Central and South America. It's beginning to look like another round-the-world journey: Barry's recently acquired Bus Pass won't be needed yet!