Perils & Pleasures of Cycling Down Under

The first warning of imminent attack was a loud screeching. The second warning was the ever-expanding shadow on the hot tarmac in front of me. I was aware of some of the dangers of cycling in Australia; huge road trains, heat exhaustion, kangaroos jumping into the road. Dingoes, poisonous snakes and spiders, too!

Even the possibility of crocodiles if you went far enough north. But this was a danger I’d only just learned about. “It’s that time of year”, my brother-in-law said, he was right and soon I was to find out!

Sally and I were lucky enough to visit Australia for 6 weeks towards the end of 2022, staying with Sally’s sister, Jenny and her husband, Martin in Bargara near Bundaberg, Queensland. We flew out with Sally’s 91-year-old mother. Also, staying with Jenny & Martin was our son, Tom, & his girlfriend, Ellie who were mid-way round their world trip.

Heading towards the sugar refinery

Bundaberg is on the east coast of Australia and is about a 5-hour drive north of Brisbane following, yes you guessed it, the Bruce Highway. Bundaberg is in sugar cane country and is world famous for its rum made from the left-over molasses from the sugar refining process and for ginger beer.

Martin is a keen triathlete and weight lifter and has several very nice bikes one of which he kindly lent me for the duration of our trip. It was his best bike so I was a little nervous riding it. Unfortunately for him it was the one that fitted me the best – i.e., the biggest! More about the bike later.

I could never understand how, whenever Martin & Jenny visited us in the Uk, they were up by 5 or 6am every day and went to bed so early. Now I understood. Struggling to get over the jet lag the heat of the day or, more importantly the humidity, knocked me for six, sapping all desire to exert myself. After a couple of days, I was persuaded to run to a café for a 7:30 breakfast with Martin & Tom. It was only 4 miles and as flat as a pancake but I nearly didn’t make it. I arrived at the café sweating from every pore with no effective cooling at all. I felt sorry for our fellow customers! I got a lift back while Martin & Tom decided to run back again! To be fair I think we had arrived in a bit of a heat wave but it was the humidity that did the damage, draining all energy.

The Hummock Lookout – the only hill for miles. At 96m (314ft) it is the remains of an extinct volcano

After a week I was getting a little more acclimatised and Martin took Tom & me on one his pre work cycles. Up at day break (4:30am) for a 5am start! Our route headed south to Elliott Heads which overlooks the wide estuary of the Elliott River. We whipped along quiet flat roads, through sugar cane fields and macadamia nut tree plantations. A brief stop to look at the river and then we were on our way back. We were back just after 7am having covered 26 miles, average speed 17.4 mph! Not my usual average speed but with the flat terrain, good road surfaces and speedy bike it hadn’t been too hard. It was so flat I rarely had to change gear but also there were few opportunities to free wheel. It had been coolish to start but by the time we got back I was starting to sweat. I now understood the early starts and early nights!

The next day was a weekend so I joined Martin on a longer ride. Again, an early start and we set off inland into Bundaberg to meet three of Martin’s mates. They all had good bikes and one was a regular veteran racer, younger than me but no spring chicken, his legs were strong and well-toned. I was a little apprehensive on whether I would be able to keep up. Martin had decided to take his new Gravel Bike with disk brakes. He had swapped his wheels over for lighter ones but it was still a relatively heavy bike. Off we went, the others taking regular turns on the front but the pace still at a fairly comfortable conversation level. Partly because I didn’t know where we were going and partly because I thought I’d better pace myself, I stayed at the back. My companions explained that the white birds that we passed, often in drive ways, with long curved beaks were known as “Bin Chickens”. So called as they were often to be found scavenging in bins and the urban environment. They are in fact Australian White Ibis.

We took a left in a residential area, cycled to the end of a Cul-de-Sac and did a U-turn. Curious, I thought, surely they know these roads. I put it down to a misunderstanding between the group and we returned to the road we had just been on and then took the next left. Ah, I suppose all these residential roads look very similar we must have just turned off too early.  Enjoying a rare downhill and regaining my position at the back of the peloton I heard the squeal of brakes and looked up to see we were at the end of another Cul-de -Sac and once again were turning round back up the hill. Then it dawned on me; we were deliberately looking for any hill however short and however pointless. I started to find this surprisingly challenging, as instead of a steady plod back up the hill they seemed to accelerate up the hill often standing to get enough power! These short sharp shocks always injected a gap that I had struggled to close. Finally, we did a long descent to the wide Bernett River. Here we had a short break to get our breath back while they told me about the devastating flood here. See the You Tube video – The story of the 2013 Bundaberg Flood Disaster :
After this and with most of the miles done I guessed coffee wasn’t too far away so I made a bit more of an effort as we returned up the hill, this was the type of hill I was more used to. I managed to hang in the middle of the pack behind the racer and Martin until near the top when the other two went passed me!

Crossing the Sugar Cane Train tracks which connect the plantations needs to be done with care.

As it turned out coffee was not half way as I thought, but back where we had all met up in Bundaberg. It was a relief when we finally arrived. The conversation turned to Martin’s bike. He lifted his bike and spun the back wheel. It did less than one quarter turn and stopped. It turned out that changing wheels had caused the brake callipers to not quite line up and although it was ok to start with, the brakes had begun to bind. Martin had been riding with his brakes on and I still couldn’t keep up on the hills. After a lot of flaffing and adjustments we gave up. We said goodbye to the others and headed back to Bargara into a stiff wind. Martin asked me to go in front as his battle with his binding brakes had taken a toll! I was quite tired too, trying not to let my pace hold Martin up. Despite the slower pace home, we had still averaged 17.2 mph over 55 miles but only climbed 480m (1600ft).

A couple of days later we went for pre-work ride north along the coast to the head of the Burnett River and back using some beautiful cycle paths through the trees and past the turtle centre. Once a year turtles return to the beach where they were born to lay their eggs. We visited one night to witness a turtle coming up the beach that was at least 75 years old. Unfortunately, it didn’t lay any eggs that night and just returned to the sea but it was an amazing experience.

Note the cable ties attached to the helmet!

This was the ride where Martin warned me about nesting magpies that become incredibly defensive but, curiously, only against cyclists. Walkers and cars are ignored. A lot of the local cyclists have cable ties sticking out of their helmets to try to deter the Magpies from completing their attacking dives and connecting with your neck, ears or, in the worst cases, eyes. If you have watched birds of prey being harassed by crows it is exactly like that. They come from behind at speed and go for your ears. They then re-gain height and turn for another run. Typically, they attack 3 or 4 times before leaving you alone.

I soon discovered that you cannot out cycle them. They can match your speed with ease. As instructed, I carried a small pump in my back pocket which I waved around my head furiously as a deterrent.  Although the magpies can cause minor injuries, the main danger I found was that the attacks completely took my mind off the road. Wobbling around with one hand on the handle bars, trying to look back and upwards whilst still considering traffic, pedestrians and road furniture was all but impossible. This is the problem! [Magpie Attacks Cyclist in Australia 😱😱😱 – Bing video].

This was the first of several attacks and I was starting to get to know which sections of the road were patrolled by magpies, not that it made it any easier. The only thing that did help was when the sun was at my back and I could see their shadows on the road in front of me which gave me early warning without having to look to the skies.

Bull head thorns

One weekend Martin’s son Sam returned from Uni and we decided to do an off road bike ride along the Boyne Burnette Rail Trail, a disused railway route [Boyne Burnett Inland Rail Trail – Rail Trails Australia]. My son, Tom, came too. We loaded the car with two mountain bikes and two gravel bikes and set off early for a two-hour drive inland to the start, at Mount Debateable near Gayndah. We were soon off down a track through fields of cattle

After a short while we dropped down through vegetation towards the river when Martin stopped, closely examining his front tyre. Each of us started to inspect our tyres to discover 20 or so thorns in each! The thorns are called bullhead thorns and have five very sharp spikes which point in different directions. Whichever way they land on the ground there is one spike pointing directly up – a clever design but a cyclist’s nightmare. We all suffered multiple punctures to the extent that we exhausted our supply of inner tubes and even the tubeless was struggling to reseal so many holes. So, after less than an hour’s cycling we sadly admitted defeat and abandoned the ride. Four hours of driving for 7 miles of cycling. What a disappointment!

Towards the end of our trip Martin had a work trip in Brisbane so kindly agreed to drive us to Brisbane with a couple of bikes. This gave us the opportunity of two pre-work rides and one longer weekend ride.

The first ride we planned was called the River Loop which is almost entirely on purpose built cycle paths and does what it says on the tin – loops along the River Brisbane. We had arranged to meet up with an old colleague of mine, Adrian, who emigrated to Australia 18 years ago. We were up at 5am to be met by drizzly grey weather. Martin greeted me with a tea and said “Your mate won’t turn up in this!” as he glanced out at the gloom outside. “No, he will,” I insisted. Reluctantly Martin agreed to ride and we were soon at the Botanical Gardens, the agreed meeting point for my friend. No show. After a couple of messages, it transpired that he had seen the weather and thought no one would cycle in these conditions. He had become a true Aussie! To be honest, when most days are sunny and dry, you can afford to skip the wet ones and keep your bike nice and clean! We continued with the ride and enjoyed the amazing cycling infrastructure – cycle paths the size of roads built on stilts above the river and purpose-built cycling bridges over the river that were completely separated from the busy traffic on the roads. Brilliant! Very popular with walkers, runners and cyclists although maybe a little less so on this particular morning. As we continued it got a little wetter. Luckily, I had a light weight jacket but Martin was pretty wet and cold by the time we finished. As he left for work, he suggested I might like to clean the bikes. Recompense, I guess.

The next day it was dry and we managed to meet up with my ex-colleague to do the Mt Coot-Tha loop. We re-traced some of the River Loop and then headed west of the city to reach the base of Mt Coot-Tha. Then it was a long steep climb to the summit at 287m (about the same as Botley Hill or Leith Hill) before completing the circuit with a fast descent back to the bottom. Then it was a swift U turn and back up the hill we had just descended. This was an easier climb and this time we stopped to admire the view of the city from the lookout. I nearly over cooked a couple of the bends on the fast descent down the steep side but survived to return to the city for a coffee stop. A great ride before breakfast!

The last ride of the trip was called The Three Fingers, so called as it involved cycling up 3 dead end roads from Brookfield which is about 10 miles from central Brisbane. Each dead-end road climbs to around 170m through farmland and bush and crossing numerous creeks. Each finger was scenic and the climbs not too steep. After the third finger we stopped in a fantastic, wood clad café for a welcome break before returning to the city. We were so close to completing 100kms that we did a couple of additional loops to complete the century.

Adrian & Martin at the top of Mt Coot-Tha overlooking the city
The end of the first finger!

It had been a great 6 weeks in Aussie and superb chance to experience cycling down under.

A big thank you to Jenny & Martin for letting us stay and to Martin for guiding me on his local routes and lending me his best bike!

The Stelbel Antenore Disc at Elliots Head

For those that are interested, the bike was a Stelbel Antenore Disk made in Italy. It’s a custom-built steel frame with titanium seat post, Campagnolo group set and carbon fibre Campagnolo shamal ultra-disk wheels. It took a while to get used to the Campagnolo gear shifters but in the end, I quite liked them as you can change several gears in one go without multiple clicks.

Tim, and Away Days in OZ!