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On the road from Coober Pedy to Alice Springs

Simon Parker's picture
Reaching the Northern Territory border with Darren. Cycle Traveller

After cycling more than 2,000km since leaving Adelaide, we have reached the desert outpost of Alice Springs in the Northern Territory – the perfect place to rest our legs for a few days. Since my last update, the Highway north from Coober Pedy took us through countless piles of multicoloured earth that mark individual opal mines. It's an extraordinary site, a vista that more or less followed us for around 25 kilometres. Yet as the mines dissipated we began to see more flora; the landscape becoming more diverse the further we cycled.

Friendly faces

We've had the pleasure of meeting a number of other cycle travellers along this stretch. There was Darren from just South Australia, who spent a few days with us on his recumbent tricycle. We gave him the nickname Rocket Man as he could surge ahead covering many more kilometres than we could in a day on his Catrike.

We also met Matt from Pennsylvania, US, a lovely bloke who was travelling in the opposite direction to us. Matt – whose physique made him look capable of bench pressing both Alia and I with our fully laden bikes without raising a sweat – was riding from Darwin to Adelaide. 'Yeah, y'know I start to zone out a bit once I get around that 140km mark each day," he told us. We just nodded in agreement as if we also faced that same hurdle. Matt gave you the very believable impression that he would power through all conditions without fuss.

Then there was Laurent from France who was also travelling south towards the Painted Desert after already having ridden 22,000km around the world. He was a true free-spirited nomad with no set destination or timeframe. "I love my life," he exclaimed.

We've heard word of a few other cyclists about too, including a bloke from Japan. It is great to see how the route we're riding attracts people from all over the world.

So how has the route been treating us since leaving Coober Pedy? Great! In fact we've actually had some of our best riding days.

Rocks and roads

The Australian Bicycle Route Project Red Centre Route. Cycle TravellerTraffic has been respectful of us, although the Stuart Highway's shoulder has continued to ebb and flow. For the vast majority of the time the traffic has been steady enough that we could stay on the road, although we were always conscious of those rare moments when vehicles would pass you in both directions at the same time – out here it's best to simply get off the road at these points. Making it tougher to jump off the road in a hurry in the South Australian section were large stones that formed part of a mix of gravel along the roadside, seemingly as a means of giving it more width. These stones, many bigger than a fist, are dangerous to ride in; in some sections they were even scattered on the edge of the road. We met one motorcyclist – Heather, on her Fat Bob Harley -- who took a fall as a result of the gravel while trying to pull over. Clearly the South Australian roads department has only taken large vehicles into account when coming up with the idea to dump chunky rocks along the roadside for hundreds of kilometres. Thankfully, it stops immediately at the Northern Territory border, where a compacted dirt edge starts up.

Food for fuel

The Red Centre Route has taken us through a few roadstops, essentially fuel/petrol stations that also offer accommodation, meals, basic supplies (think tinned/packaged food, snacks and cold drinks) and a bar. Two that stood out for us were Marla at the northern end of the Oodnadatta Track, a particularly well-stocked road house with plenty of shade; and Stuarts Well, just 90km south of Alice Springs, for its character, home-cooked meals and ambience.

The weather has been favourable of late, with the strong headwinds we experienced down south finally dissipating. Our average kilometres per day has surged as a result, up from 65km to around 100km. Days are getting longer, too, ever so slowly but the sun is staying up long enough to pedal an extra few kilometres each day.

Food continues to be a preoccupation for us. A good meal does wonders for the mind and body, and almost always translated into more kilometres travelled. And while food is more expensive in these parts, it's generally not extortionate and nor is a meal anywhere near the cost a tank of of unleaded fuel. A quick look at the petrol bowser price, $2.05 a litre at one service station - makes you realise what a bargain cycle touring can be. At least we get to enjoy consuming our fuel. Particularly a beer. Or three.

Ancient mountains

Hiking in Kings Canyon Northern Territoory Australia. Cycle TravellerSouthern NT has been entertaining from our bike seats. We've edged our way through various mountain ranges, some of which were once 10,000 metres plus in height, yet while millions of years of erosion may have stunted their height its done little to undermine their grandeur against the stark flatness of the surrounding plains. Birdlife has also been plentiful, pursuing their busy lives in the shrubs and trees along the edges of the Highway. A lunch stop spent by a largely dry river bed was spent in the company of three galahs, a few budgerigars and finches, amongst other birds that would flit by for a quick drink at the small pool of water near our feet.

Off the main road, Uluru, Kata Tjuta and Kings Canyon have all been breathtaking, as would be expected, and are well worth getting out to see while in these parts.

A highlight of this last stretch though has been the MacDonnell Ranges, and in particular a night spent at Standley Chasm. Located just 50km west of Alice Springs and on the renowned 225km-long Larapinta Trail hiking route, the Chasm is an oasis of tranquility. Owned by the Iwupataka Land Trust and operated by the Angkerle Aboriginal Corporation, the site has an innate charm, from its cosy wood fire, freshly baked scones, through to the old school shower that has you heating your own water. Camping is permitted on either grassed or select sandy areas, and it's even possible to purchase meal packages that include afternoon tea, a multi-course dinner and a generous breakfast complete with barista coffee. Ray Prunty, the manager general, and his staff were great hosts – attentive but relaxed. And all this before you even set foot within the deep confines of the 80 metre high gorge itself.

Bike check

The seemingly hard-carved Ranges themselves are a joy to cycle through, part of which we did on a dedicated bike path from Simpsons Gap into Alice Springs, where we find ourselves now. Alice is a great town to have a rest after 2,000kms of riding, and to also have the bikes serviced. For the latter we can certainly recommend Corey Gerdsen at Bicycle Centre, on the Stuart Highway. Not only did he give the bikes a thorough check for a very reasonable price, he's also one of a few locals that bent their backs to create the hundreds of kilometres of mountain bike trails that ring the town. Having ridden all over the world, Corey reckons Alice has some of the best trails on the planet and having seen the mountains out here, he's probably right.

Bicycle Centre is a well stocked cycling store, and at essentially the halfway mark of the Red Centre Route, it makes it an ideal location to have the bikes serviced.

We leave tomorrow on the next stage of the Red Centre Route, which sees us move closer to Darwin and the tropical confines of the Top End.

Images: 1. Reaching the northern Territory border with Darren on his Catrike. 2. Simon cycling along the MacDonnell Ranges. 3. Hiking in Kings Canyon.

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