I write this post about the Indian Pacific Wheel Race (IPWR) with mixed emotions. The tragic end to the race overshadows an incredible experience and wonderful event which was taking shape with such momentum. Originally I was not going to write anything. After Mike Hall’s tragic death we have all banded together, taken some time to reflect and support each other. Some continued to ride the route, others not. Mike will always be in our hearts, with us each time we ride. I will never forget the passion for life and for cycling that Mike had and the way that he inspired us all to get out there and ride.
I am sure he would not want us to remember the IPWR in such a tragic way. It is a route right up there with the most challenging bikepacking routes in the world. We were racing it hard, in the true spirit of ultra-endurance cycling. I think we should share stories about the great race we were participating in and also not to be afraid to keep doing the things that we love and that challenge us.
For me, the IPWR was a ride that tore me in two different directions. Part of me loved exploring this spectacular country that I live in. It is so vast and I felt so tiny. The Nullarbor was like nothing I had imagined and I loved it. It was just that riding on the road, putting my life in the hands of hundreds of truck drivers and caravan enthusiasts, was exhausting. More exhausting than the riding itself. I found myself longing for those lonely remote hills of Whitefish Divide in Montana, or the sweet wet forests of New Zealand.
Nonetheless, I had thirteen windy, rainy, freezing, sunny, boiling, boring and beautiful days on the road, full of kangaroo stench, desert dust and sea breeze. There were plenty of ups and downs but I’ll save you from a day by day, meal by meal account of the journey this time. Instead, I thought I would share just a few standout tales from the road.
I was lucky that before I started in Perth I received some sage advice: “Don’t expect a tail wind or you’ll be very disappointed and won’t enjoy a single second of it. Expect a head wind and that way you’ll be mentally prepared and pleasantly surprised by anything else”. Man, it was a headwind we got alright. From day two I experienced day upon day of relentless head winds. It made my mouth dry and my nose bleed. The air was so dry. Saddle sores were worsened from pushing my body hard into an aero tuck position, looking for any advantage. The wind combined with the intermittent gusts from trucks passing was very mentally draining but there was really no alternative except giving up. That was not an option. Instead, I drew some deep breaths and smiled. This was what I was here for. To experience the real Australia.
It was fantastic to have a few riders around so we could laugh about it. At one point I found myself having a time-out on the dusty road verge with Ben and Eion, looking at each others windswept faces and laughing at questions like “this is fun right?” Nearing Eucla and the WA/SA border, I had ridden about 80km in eight hours. F*ing demoralising! There were times when it felt like it was better to sit and wait it out but in the end it was better to just keep moving forward. The wind wasn’t going anywhere. The hardest moment for me was walking out of the Nullarbor Roadhouse in the hottest, most foul wind, to be greeted with a sign reading ‘Nullarbor Plain. Western end of the treeless plain’. Wow. This was one of the most iconic parts of Australia and I had chosen to ride my bike here. “Still beats working!!” I yelled into the wind, laughing. For some reason I kept smiling for hours after that. At sunset the Yalata Indigenous Protected Area was showing off red and oranges against green trees. What a magical place.
Food glorious food
I am a vegetarian (try to be vegan where possible) and gluten free. I knew that this was going to be difficult and make moving quickly through towns much more complicated. Also if there was no options that fitted into these categories I was worried my guts would revolt if I assaulted it with meat, dairy and gluten all at once. I had slowly introduced dairy and gluten back in over a month. On day two I found myself shivering and wet eating a big-breakfast just to stay warm, and then meat sandwiches and sausage rolls that evening. The camera crew even got me explaining that shopping list on video. Each servo stop always began with necking a gatorate, coconut water and a chocolate milk.
Not even vegetarian lasted two days for me. I easily fell back into my favourite routine of potato chips, Snickers bars, sausage rolls and developed a hardcore hate for muesli bars and more muesli bars. What I did find hilarious was rolling into a roadhouse on day three and staring blankly up at the menu. The lady looked me up and down and then said “Let me guess… veggie burger?” I don’t know what place I was in in the race, maybe around 20th, but it became clear that there were definitely some ‘trendy hipster vegos’ up ahead of me, as the lady so politely put it!!
My guts got the better of me after the first few days of the junk food onslaught. At 2am in Balladonia I was all packed and ready to head out when I got the desperate urge to use the loos. My accommodation had no bathroom but the attendant had given me the code to the caravan park toilets. I ran over and punched it in. No luck. I tried the mens. No luck. Oh god. I attempted to run to the main service station toilets but that failed miserably. So there at 2am in the middle of nowhere, I crapped my pants. I spent the next hour washing my knicks, super worried of the implications this may have for my saddle sores. To make the morning even better, a few kilometres down the road my lights flickered across a sign reading ’90 Mile Straight. Australia’s longest straight road’. This race was getting real.
The first night of the race I managed to score a room at the Carrabin Hotel. I’ll admit right now it was a total rip-off for one person but it was bliss to hear the rain falling outside while I was in my cosy room. The second night I rolled into Widgiemooltha after everything was shut, but managed to find the toilet block open and a nice warm laundry to bed down in. The floor was rock solid and freezing but I managed a few hours shut-eye. The third night, after an epic day in the wind, I stayed in ‘backpacker style’ accommodation in Balladonia. Literally it was two adjoined shipping containers with doors into rooms (maybe 5m x 5m) which consisted of a bed and a space for my bike. No lights, but there were power points galore. Winner!
I bivvied just after the WA/SA border on night five, convinced that I could sleep for 4 hours and the wind would go away (it didn’t). While setting up camp with Joe Donnelly from the UK, he casually mentioned that he was REALLY worried about scorpions and that a truckie had told him they like to try and get in warm sleeping bags. I shrugged off the comment with an “I am an Australian and have never seen a scorpion”… only to turn around and have one sitting right next to my bivvy bag. EEEEEK! As it ran into a hole, Joe and I exchanged tired but worried looks. He wanted to camp down the road but I wasn’t moving. Here was no different to 1km down the road, we were in the middle of a huge desert. I fell asleep dreaming of evil biting things.
I found my sleep system ill-equip to handle bugs or rain. I had decided to go lighter than my tent I usually take, but the open top SOL escape bivvy just didn’t work for me unfortunately. Two nights I distinctly remember getting next to zero sleep, as mozzies landed on my face and I battled to wrap my head up in my emergency bag to get some peace. When you are setting your alarm for two – four hours sleep, getting no sleep in that time is stupid. I was getting really tired in the days and needing day-time naps to make up for my lack of sleep. So, I was always on the hunt for a good old toilet block.
It had been a while since I’d made a public toilet block my sleeping place of choice for the night. In Tour Divide it was mainly for protection from bears and other wildlife, but also for warmth. As it turns out, Seb and I slept in the exact same female toilet in Nundroo, only a few nights apart. When I asked why he had been in the ladies, he reminded me of Mike Hall’s wise words “the ladies are always cleaner!”
One night I completely don’t remember was in Murray Bridge. I rolled into town about 8pm and had some dinner. I had had a terrible day with excruciating knee pain and had spent many hours hobbling along crying. I decided a hotel room and shower was in order. I dragged my loaded bike up flights of stairs to stay at the Bridgeport Hotel. I washed myself and my clothes. Cranked the heater and pulled the three layers of blinds down. Set my alarm for five hours and quickly fell asleep. When I woke up I was shocked by the amount of traffic noise for what I though was 3am. I looked at my phone and it said 8am. I was so confused. The room was dark. I lifted the blinds to blaring sun and traffic. I had slept 10 hours. I was devastated. This was my first accidental sleep in a bikepacking ‘race’ and unfortunately, even though now it seems so trivial, was the undoing of my mental game and ultimately the beginnings of the end of my race. I was furious and rode a long hard day after that somehow believing I could make it up, but knowing I couldn’t.
The most memorable night for me was the next night in Millicent, SA. I rolled into town about 1am after a long day trying to ‘make up time’. I managed to find a luscious green park with a toilet block and covered picnic area with lights and power points. What a score! I set up my bivvy on the grass under a beautiful big tree and slipped into a lovely sleep. I was nearly four hours into my beauty nap when I was woken by a noise I knew all too well. SPRINKLERS! Huge sprinklers shooting water all over the park, me and my bike. Swearing loudly, nearly ripping my bivvy in half, with my knicks around my knees, I dragged my semi packed bike and sleeping gear over to the lit shelter and pulled my pants up. Good morning sunshine!
Ben, Boxes and my race to catch Stu
I had the privilege of meeting and riding with Ben Hirons and Eoin ‘Boxes’ Marshall. I started out leap frogging with Eoin on day two and three. We didn’t really chat much until I plonked myself at his table at the Balladonia Roadhouse “Hope you don’t mind if I sit down!?” We leap frogged for another few days until after Madura where we crashed outside the servo for a few winks. In the basin we caught up with Ben and a few others including Stu Edwards. From this point I had a little race going in my head with Stu. He moved at such a consistent pace and I was a little bit jealous of how fast he could transition through stops, while I would sit there and order half the menu.
It was clear that Ben and Eoin were good buddies, taking Instagrams of each other and telling jokes. I was a bit of a third wheel but they made it fun. After Ceduna we rode together for a few days. It felt like we were night-time bandits. We’d ride until 11pm, pop the NoDoze and go singing into the night on what the boys had coined ‘night shift’.
I’ll never forget the looks on their faces when I told them that the Kimba Roadhouse was run by an Indian family and there was vegetarian curry inside! Almost as good as the look on Ben’s face when we realised we found a 24hr vending machine ‘shop’ in Wilmington. I didn’t see them after this, I left to continue in the 41 degree heat and they were to wait it out and do another night-shift. Unfortunately soon after, Eoin was hit by a car and out of the race. Thanks for the company guys and I am so glad you are recovering Eoin!
I never got any closer to Stu after my accidental 10 hr sleep at Murray Bridge, but did end up catching him in Canberra to give him a hug and a brownie when he came through (after I pulled out).
If the mosquitoes keeping me awake all night were not bad enough, the March flies surely made up for it during the days. I conclude that there must something about my blood that they seem to love. Something biting insects love more about me than everyone else. Eoin laughed at the cloud that was flying behind me. They were biting my legs, my ankles, my arse, my shoulders, my neck. After hours of yelping I was nearly reduced to panic attacks, yelling at them, pleading for no more arse biting, and slapping the painful bites. In Kyancutta I ran into a shop asking for insect repellent. They didn’t have any. When the lady saw the crushed look on my face, she went out the back and came back with a can of Mortein. “I can spray you with surface spray”?? I was desperate and said yes. I turned around in a circle while she sprayed, focusing a good burst of spray of my arse. As it turns out, Mortein firstly doesn’t stop March flies biting through clothing. Secondly, it irritated my sweaty skin and resulted in a nasty rash. Thirdly, lyrca appears to not be compatible with Mortein and my knicks where considerably saggy on my butt after this. I am sure they were probably see-through too but at least no one had the heart to tell me that!
The best dot watcher a girl could ask for
My phone had limited battery and I never actually had reception until I got to Port Augusta. Before the race I had spoken to my grandmother and said we were coming through Adelaide. It was going to be hard to have a meal together and I decided that I’d let the family sort out the dot watching, and hoped the stars would align for us to meet. And, as I was riding through Stirling, I heard a lady yell “Beth Beth”. There on the corner of the road was my nan. She had driven herself down to meet me. We shared hugs and stories and then a few selfies. What a highlight!
The Nullarbor was indeed my favourite part of the ride (that I completed) but a close second was the Coorong. I had heard the name before but had no idea what it was. I had not researched this part of the ride too closely and not looked at it on a map. Being a park ranger I have a passionate for nature, national parks and especially fauna. The bird life of the Coorong was spectacular and that was only from my bike seat, I didn’t go to any lookouts. At one point I noticed pelicans flying in Vs above me. They were heading towards a swirling pillar of other pelicans, rising high up into the sky. It was incredible, mesmerising like a dance, but completely silent. I stood and watched for ages. This was nature at its purest. It brought the biggest smile to face that lasted hours until I stopped and bought a peppermint magnum. That was also spectacular.
My last day
My last day racing the IPWR was crazy. It started being woken up by sprinklers in Millicent at 3am in the morning. I had an easy and very pleasant ride through Mount Gambier, with rain showers on and off for most of the morning. I crossed the border into Victoria and had a roaring tailwind towards Portland.
I knew there were storms around but somehow I managed to ride the tailwind through them. About 10km from Portland the route took an interesting turn. 90 degrees to the right, I was now travelling perpendicular to that fantastic tailwind. In the blink of an eye, the storm from hell opened up on me. It was so sudden I pulled off in some trees, failing to even get my rain gear out quick enough. The wind was buffeting me sideways and I could not ride. I could hardly walk. The rain was torrential and the temperature had dropped about 10 degrees. I was waiting for my bike to get blown sideways out of my hands. There was nowhere to hide. After 15 minutes I was wet to the core and freezing. I attempted to pull off into a driveway to sit on a house porch. I fell off in the loose gravel and hurt my shoulder which I have had numerous surgeries on. The resident, a lovely lady, didn’t quite grasp the concept of how cold I was until I pulled out my emergency bivvy. “Yeah its really gusting now, the wind farm up the corner will be cranking”. I nodded, not at all shocked to hear it was obviously a windy area. She headed off to get her son from school while I contemplated what to do.
Eventually I ate a can of HTFU and rode the 10km into town. I was so cold and wet I looked for a coin laundry to hang out in. With no luck and only getting colder I got a hotel room. I showered and ordered a pizza. The amazing staff found me a t-shirt while they laundered my clothes. Two hours later, the sun was shining. It was surreal. I didn’t want to waste my $70 hotel room but it was early in the arvo and I could’t stop thinking of my 10 hour sleep two nights before. I convinced myself to keep moving forward. Any forward movement is good movement. The hotel staff were very confused when I dropped the key back, having been there a total of only a few hours.
Back on the road I felt happy with my choice. I’d try make Port Fairy or Warrnambool that night. Unfortunately the weather had other plans for me. About 9pm another storm hit and I found myself looking around for shelter. There was very little tree cover and I started to panic. For the umpteenth time I wished I had brought my tent instead of a bivvy. I was a bit frazzled and not making good choices. A house with lights on was close to the road and I took the chance. I ended up staying the night, having cups of tea by the fire, sharing the room with friendly farm cats and dogs. The welcoming family were so friendly and it was the night I needed. I knew I had sought outside assistance (against the rules) and technically my race was over. I sent Seb a message that I would pull out in Warrnambool and slept the most peaceful night.
In the morning with eggs on toast and warm tea in my belly, I rolled through to Warrnambool train station. I was happy with my decision to retire from the race. I was not getting what I wanted out of the ride anymore. I was unhappy and knowing I had 2000km left to ride made it even easier. If I was a few hundred kilometres from the end, maybe I might have made a difference choices, though I am not sure what I could have done differently to change how my race ended. That night I slept at the farm it poured and howled wind all night. I wouldn’t have safely made that night in a bivvy. Maybe I should have stayed in my hotel room? Maybe I should have pushed on in the storm. All after thoughts I guess.
A conclusion of sorts
The day after I retired from the race it was cancelled after Mike’s death. I spent an emotional day in the back of a car on my way back to Canberra trying to come to terms with everything. It was such a horrific way to end an amazing adventure. I have such fond memories of the days we spent in Fremantle, of the Nullarbor, the Coorong and the lifelong friends I have made. The locals along the route were ever so generous and friendly. The dot watchers and others who cheered us on along the way were so uplifting. They made the fear and exhaustion from the traffic worthwhile. Riding through Adelaide with friends and others I have never met, people just riding along chatting. It was humbling.
I can’t wait for my next adventure. I am of the opinion that it will be on the dirt but I’ll look for inspiration and see where the road takes me. Thanks Mike for inspiring us to challenge ourselves and thanks Jesse for giving us the opportunity to take the challenge.