Flies sit on my arms, ears, cheeks, lips and, occasionally, tongue. At ﬁrst I swat them away constantly. But after a while I ﬁnd myself studying their behaviour. I watch as one lands silently on my puny bicep. It rubs its front legs (are they legs, or are they arms – ﬂies don’t have arms, surely?) on my bare skin in a move that looks uncannily like a human spreading butter, or petting a dog. Then it lifts both its front legs and rubs them together, again much like we would warm up our hands in the cold. Finally the ﬂy moves its front legs towards its face and wipes its eyes. I guess it is using my abundant sweat to cool itself and, if I am honest, I feel used. I put an end to the ﬂies’ fun by reaching for the head net I bought in Darwin. I feel, and probably look like, an idiot wearing it, but it does the trick, even if it does diminish the cooling effect of the breeze. From now on the ﬂies have restricted access to my sweaty brow.
It took me two hours to negotiate the ﬁrst twenty-ﬁve miles east out of Mataranka, dodging potholes and rotting kangaroo carcasses as I kept one eye ﬁrmly in my wing mirror in case a road train appeared. At least it was still bitumen. Eventually I managed ﬁfty-three miles before setting up camp (mosquito net, no outer lining – it wasn’t going to rain) in a clearing beside the road. An Aboriginal family pulled up at one point, opened their car bonnet and poured an entire jerry can of water over the bare engine; a novel tactic to cool it down. They drove off again without noticing me, which presumably meant that I was well hidden.
I was excited by the wild country. To my left was the southern boundary of Arnhem Land, an historically signiﬁcant Aboriginal Reserve about the size of Scotland and Wales put together. I was reading a book called Hell West and Crooked, pages of which were falling out because the glue couldn’t cope with the humidity, a bit like me. It is the Englishman Tom Cole’s account of his life as a horse breaker, drover and buffalo and crocodile hunter in the Top End – the northernmost part of Australia’s Northern Territory – in the 1920s and 1930s. He wrote the book ﬁfty years later, and talked a lot about the places I was heading through. ‘Arnhem Land,’ he wrote, ‘even today, is one of the most remote spots in the world.’ I could well believe it. But for the hiss of a million crickets there was complete silence. I could see nothing but a high moon and a sky full of stars, meaning that I didn’t even need my head-torch to write my diary:
Diary entry: 6 October 2010, Mataranka towards Roper Bar (53 miles)
First day on Roper Highway. Huge, dense ﬂocks of galahs, pink and grey cockatoos, ﬂew in front of me all day as if, like me, they needed the track to guide them. Galahs were far from my only companions. Brumbies (wild horses), donkeys, kangaroos, wedge-tailed eagles, the odd buffalo and ﬂocks of bright green parrots dropped in to see how I was getting on, and perhaps noted that I wasn’t coping too badly. Just worked out that if I manage ﬁfty-ﬁve miles a day for forty days, with nine rest days, I’ll get to Brisbane in time for the Ashes. But while there may only be one country to cross, it’s Australia, and it’s bloody big.
This is an extract from Cycling to the Ashes, the book I wrote in 2011, shortly after I returned from 14 months pedalling to Brisbane, Australia. Of course, part of the thrill was that I never knew who I'd meet, what I'd eat or where I'd sleep from day to day. Four years later I like a little more structure to my cycling adventures, and I know plenty of you do too. If you've dreamed of cycling to the other side of the planet but don't know how to go about organising it, or even if you'd just like a chat about what to expect, drop me an email. We can help.